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Geographical expression: So what?

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Nigeria’s acting president Yemi Osinbajo

In his book, Path to Nigeria freedom which was published in 1947 Chief Obafemi Awolowo had said that “Nigeria is not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression. There are no “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.” I believe that the import of Awo’s statement was to indicate that Nigeria was not a homogenous State but merely a conglomeration of ethnic groups. In other words, he apparently only wanted to emphasize Nigeria’s diversity so that all the component parts could take that on board as the fight for Nigeria’s independence progressed.

Awo was, however, not the only Nigerian leader that drew attention to the apparent lack of cohesion in the country. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa who became the first and only Prime Minister of Nigeria had said, also in 1947, that “since the amalgamation of Southern and Northern provinces in 1914 Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper …. It is still far from being united. Nigeria’s unity is only a British intention for the country.” His statement was recorded in the Hansard of that year.

This diversity and lack of unity between the North and South was evident to the colonial masters. In 1948, Sir Arthur Richards, later known as Lord Milverton, who governed Nigeria after the retirement of Sir Bernard Boudillon in 1943 had commented thus: “ It is only the accident of British suzerainty which had made Nigeria one country. It is still far from being one country or one nation socially or even economically… socially and politically there are deep differences between the major tribal groups. They do not speak the same language and they have highly divergent customs and ways of life and they represent different stages of culture. “All of these differences were obvious to Nigerian leaders who, in spite of them, decided to fight as one for Nigeria’s independence.

But even while the quest for independence was on the schisms that they and the British colonialists mentioned were easily noticeable. In 1950, the Northern delegation to the constitutional conference had threatened that “unless the Northern region was allotted 50 per cent of the seats in the central legislature it would ask for separation from the rest of Nigeria on the arrangements existing before 1914.”

Three years later, in 1953, the Western Region threatened to secede over the issue of revenue allocation and the separation of Lagos from the West as Federal capital. In his telegram to the Colonial Secretary Awolowo was quoted as saying. “ I challenge you to deny that the people of the Western region have the right of self – determination and are free to decide whether or not they remain in the proposed Nigerian Federation.” Of the three existing regions at the time it was the Eastern region that did not flex its muscles until 1964. According to the State House Diary, the Eastern Region had threatened to secede following the controversy that greeted the 1964 federal elections. Things were somehow patched up but in 1967 the Eastern Region made good its threat though for a different reason.

The pogrom in Northern Nigeria that took the lives of many Easterners especially Igbos was the immediate trigger of the Biafran revolt. The point to note here is that the Biafran war was not caused by the fact of Nigeria being a geographical expression” but by the fact that Nigeria’s leaders did not manage efficiently the fallouts of the January 15 and July 29, 1966 coups. It can be said without any fear of contradiction that Nigeria’s problems are not caused merely by our “geographical expression –ness”. They are caused by the failure of its leaders to manage the country’s diversity with a sense of fairness and equity. There is no country in the world that is completely homogenous. Secondly, most of the countries considered to be geographical expressions have been able, through good leadership, to accommodate their local idiosyncrasies with a large measure of success.

Italy used to be described as a geographical expression, it has been a notable theatre of governmental instability but its strength is the vibrancy of its private sector. It has managed to overcome the dysfunctionality that the domination of its politics by the mafia had wreaked on the country. India is a country of several religions and peoples but even with its neighbours Pakistan and Bagladesh who were part of the Indian subcontinent sniping at its feet it has moved on to become a leading country in “appropriate technology and science.” Canada, like Camerouns, has French and English speaking peoples but has managed this diversity with considerable aplomb and admirable even-handedness. And what of the United States? A country with a collection of hyphenated immigrants has also spread the welcome mat for more immigrants through its Visa lottery.

This large-heartedness has contributed immensely to America’s exceptionalism. Diversity has become its anchor. It does not mean that African – Americans do not complain of racial segregation, but America, like all countries, is a work in progress. Nigeria is not a finished job. It is a work in progress. It is a country of multi-ethnic solidarity, low integration and other pathologies that plague several other federations.

This period seems to be our winter of discontent. Several ethnic groups are spooling their anger, spoiling for a fight. We are now in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Whether we know it or not we are all in a potentially uninsured, dangerous spot. We are walking the knife-edge of danger. Our youths seem to have embraced a casual acceptance of the possibility of violence.

The anti-people hate speeches have increased. From hate speeches they have metastasized into hate songs. If their opponents return the favour where will we be? Is this a show of narcissism? Do we have a vested interest in violence and its collateral and multi-pronged dimension?

Many groups have declared their paper republics. You would think by the fast and furious pace of their declarations that the idea is about to go out of fashion. I don’t know how many more republics are about to be declared. At the rate we are going President Muhammadu Buhari and his man, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, may end up being the only ones still singing Nigeria’s national anthem and flying its flag. With these multiplicity of declarations by various groups with varying sizes of their republics one person way find himself being appropriated by two or more republics.

October 1 is our day of freedom, the day we lowered the Union Jack and raised our green white green denoting our freedom from colonial rule. We have marked that day for years with pomp and panoply. This year is likely to be different. Some people are trying to make this year’s October 1 the day of our enslavement, the day that we will all live in fear for our lives and the lives of our friends and family. There has been a lot of saber-rattling and trash-talking and anger-spewing. There is a graceless burst of bad news everywhere. Every section seems to be angry with every other section and who will restrain whom from being angry? Anger is an animal instinct that often leads to the birth of nonsense and the birth of violence if there is no restraining hand.

Where is the restraining hand today? Where are the mothers of these youths who want to start what they cannot finish? Can they be restrained? In moments of conflict women and children are the ones who suffer most. Where are the mothers? Can they tell their children to step on the brakes and bring this madness to a halt.

Anti-hate speech legislation is fine but it is not enough. There are too many people spitting fire right now that there may not be enough prisons to accommodate all the violators. Let community and opinion leaders and all people of conscience rise and make their voices heard in a ringing condemnation of the diet of mayhem that some youths have promised us on a day that ought to symbolise our liberation.
Being a geographical expression is not a death sentence. Most countries of the world are some sort of expression – geographical, ethnic, linguistic, and religious. They all have their differences and imperfections but they work hard to reduce their differences and increase their similarities. We should do likewise. If we are a geographical expression, so what? It is not a death sentence, I repeat.


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