Nigeria : The smouldering ground
“Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on the principles deduced from it.” – G.F.W. Hegel, Philosophy of History (1832).
Nigeria, as in the period between 1964-70, appears to have entered another convulsive period in its history. A potential existential threat, greater than that posed to the country by the Civil War of 1967-70, appears to be emerging as a deep chasm opens up between the South, on the one hand, and the North-West and North-East geopolitical regions, on the other hand, over the question of the future direction of the country’s constitutional development. There is a very definite undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration among most in the South, including the South-West which voted for President Muhammadu Buhari, at the nature of our federalism and the way the country has been governed since independence.
The general cry across the South – particularly in the South-East and South-South geopolitical regions, where the people, stirred by ethnic pride, are very bitter that an overbearing federal government has ridden roughshod over their legitimate aspirations – is for a devolution of the greater share of governmental powers and authority to the component units of the Federation in order to end the encroachments of a marauding Federal Government that neither shares their values nor recognises their aspirations, and, thereby, once again, take control of their destinies.
This struggle for the devolution of power and authority is unlikely to abate; it can only escalate, as it is simply in the natural order of things for man to aspire to ever greater freedoms. Hegel (1770-1831), the great 19th century German philosopher, affirmed this in his major work, Philosophy of History, in the following terms : “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” Of particular relevance to Nigeria is the history of Canada, where the same struggle occurred in the early days of their Federation.
Then, eminent political leaders such as John A. MacDonald (the chief architect of the creation, in 1867, of the Federation of Canada from Britain’s North American colonies, and its first prime minister), George Brown, Charles Tupper, George-Etienne Cartier, etc., championed the cause of a strong central government – because it was their view that “states rights” contributed much to sparking the American Civil War – while strong provincial leaders such as Premier Oliver Mowat in Ontario, and Premier Honoré Mercier in Quebec, made it indelibly clear that, no matter how the Constitution was worded, they were going to exercise their provincial strength. Neither is the struggle for a greater devolution of the powers and authority of government new in Nigeria : Northern Nigeria, amidst unprecedented violence, demanded an end to the centralising policies of the Ironsi administration in May, 1966.
It was unto this smouldering ground that President Buhari, a disciplined, professional soldier with a distinguished war record, ascetic lifestyle, and a reputation for integrity, stepped when he assumed office in 2015. Unfortunately, he entered into the presidency with his mind made up and a scheme in his pocket for addressing the increasingly strident calls in the South for a renegotiation of the terms of association of the Nigerian union, the defining issue of the times on which the future of the country turns. The President’s response is to ignore all such calls ; place the report of the last national constitutional conference in the icebox ; offer a series of ineffective palliatives – including cleaning up the environmental pollution in the Niger Delta ; and, as the ultimate sanction, crush by the application of military force the restive communities who are fighting for nothing more than the adherence to the letter and spirit of the constitutional arrangements that were the bases upon which Nigeria was granted independence as one united country, but which, tragically, was unilaterally abrogated.
John Dryden, the 17th century English poet, dramatist, and critic, wrote in prologue to All for Love (1678), that “Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow. He who would search for pearls must dive below.” The threat posed to the country by this dangerous divergence of opinion on the question of constitutional reform does not readily lend itself to any facile solutions. Yet, much could have been achieved had the President only tried first to ascertain what was wrong by enquiry from those who are qualified to enlighten him ; co-opted those who truly represent the wishes of their peoples as partners in working out a reform scheme ; diligently prepared himself for constitutional reform by studying the great principles on which other successful multi-ethnic entities and federations had been founded ; familiarised himself with the works of previous Nigerian constitutional reform proposals.
Such an approach, of course, demands a statesmanship that recognises the multiplicity of interests, and respects the diversity of perspectives, inherent in a multi-ethnic country such as Nigeria is. It calls for a profundity of thought, objectivity, and sincerity. Anthonio Machado (1875-1939), the Spanish poet, put it rather well in his book, Juan de Mairena (1943) : “There is no way of seeing things without first taking leave of them.” One can only hope that President Buhari, too, like President Lyndon Johnson [who, in spite of being a Southerner, achieved truly revolutionary breakthroughs with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which have improved the lives of African-Americans], will take leave of the old, settled complex of predilections, prejudices, instincts, emotions, habits, and convictions, many of which have never served Nigeria well, and, instead, “learn from history and act on the principles deduced from it.”
According to Hegel, “To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in turn presents a rational aspect.” I believe that if the Buhari administration learns the lessons of history, and acts on the principles to be deduced from them, the “smouldering ground” in Nigeria today will not become a raging bushfire tomorrow.
Ajose-Adeogun is a legal practitioner in Lagos, (firstname.lastname@example.org).