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Nigeria: To build a nation

By Teniola Tonade
05 December 2018   |   3:02 am
Last week, in the course of a periodic meeting where the most news-worthy national issues are the mainstay of discussion, deliberations moved towards the question of what lies ahead for Nigeria as a nation, with particular regard to the coming general elections. The queries were familiar ones: What are the major failures of past and…

[FILE] Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari takes part in the opening ceremony of the military staff annual conference, on November 28, 2018, as part of his trip to visit troops on front lines of Boko Haram conflict. (Photo by Audu MARTE / AFP)

Last week, in the course of a periodic meeting where the most news-worthy national issues are the mainstay of discussion, deliberations moved towards the question of what lies ahead for Nigeria as a nation, with particular regard to the coming general elections.

The queries were familiar ones: What are the major failures of past and current governments? What, therefore, should be the chief responsibility and target of the next administration, assuming, of course, that that administration will have the interest of the country at heart?

As anyone would have expected, there was no paucity of points raised in giving answers to these questions. For as even a ten year-old would know, governance in Nigeria has failed in many ways.

But aside from the very cogent but usual complaints—terrible infrastructure and the lack of basic amenities, the general plummeting of the people’s quality of life, incessant terrorism, deplorable educational system, the political avarice and rapaciousness of the ruling class, etc.—one general, overarching bungle that everyone around the table agreed to is the failure at nation building.

It is this particular failure, said the distinguished members of that Board, that has been most effective in stalling the progressive realisation of what might be called “The Nigerian Project.”

It would therefore behove on whoever emerges victorious in the 2019 elections to get immediately to the task of (re)building the nation.

Everyone present at that meeting quickly admitted, however, that “nation building” is a rather nebulous idea, and the question did not take long to materialise as to what exactly it takes (or means) to build a nation.

Is it a willingness to selflessly serve? The ability to motivate an apathy-stricken citizenry to work for the country’s progress? Is it the entrenchment of justice? Or fairness? Equality? Or the rule of law?

Without prejudice to these various ideas that surfaced in response, I believe that one specific phrase eluded that honoured round table.

That phrase, which everyone, by the way, implied but no one quite hit on the head, is—“a sense of belonging.” It may seem vague too, and looks definitely more than a bit of an oversimplification.

But I wish to argue here that cultivating this sense of belonging, in the simple sense of making every section or member of the populace feel like that entity called “Nigeria” belongs to them to preserve and enjoy, is the sole objective of, and pathway to, nation building.

There is no greater bane to the success and sustainability of nations than a pervasive suspicion, or realisation, that certain sections, persons, or interest groups within the larger population continue to claim the goodness of the land for themselves alone.

Kingdoms, dynasties, and empires have been shaken or diminished, if not destroyed, precisely due to this imbalance of claims.

Princes and royal maids have fallen in direct dramatic proportion to the level of arrogance with which they arrogated the resources and identity of the state to themselves.

Examples abound in history: the Roman-Egyptian goddess Cleopatra, the French queen Marie Antoinette, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of Liberia and, to bring it further closer to the present, the overlords of the Arab world during the Spring.

All of these point to the often lethal power of a widespread feeling of exclusion within a body politic.

Speaking in reference to the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Empire, the great English historian Edward Gibbon wrote that “most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society are produced by…confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many.”

It is a grave mistake to assume that these coveted objects are only material.

Justice and security are, for example, ideal objects coveted by many but granted, sadly, and most poignantly in the Nigerian context, to the moneyed few.

Money itself is a two-character commodity: abundant and abused in a handful of enclaves; scarce and worshipped—in the fashion of a Deus Remotus—in most other places. Equality too is, in accordance with the Orwellian explanation, not rendered equally to everyone.

The interpretation of this state of affairs, in the mind of most Nigerians, is simply that the country (by which I mean its material and non-material treasures) belongs to only a few; and if the country does not belong to everybody that lives in it, then not everybody belongs to (should give herself to) the country. Hence, the collapse of nation building.

We need a serious leadership that will return to the basic task of nation building, by making all citizens feel that they own the country. Until such a leadership is mounted, Nigeria will continue to spin on the same spot.

The palpable patriotism that is felt among the people in most successful nations, the adoption of a common purpose, the reality of selfless and efficient civil servants, of people who do not default on taxes or litter the streets with the paraphernalia of their difficult existence— all these can only be built on a strong feeling of shared ownership.

If this feeling is absent then there is no nationhood; everyone will, as is sadly the case with Nigeria, be working at cross-purposes.

President Buhari understood this logic of nationhood, or was nearly well-advised towards it, when during his inauguration speech he declared: “I belong to everyone, and I belong to no-one.”

This was obviously before the likes of Abba Kyari and Mamman Daura, or perhaps the Fulani nation as a whole, began to brandish their ownership deeds.

The president is ill-advised to have abandoned the stance of universal belonging for sectional ownership, and running the country as if it were a Fulani-Islamic caliphate.

The pattern of appointments under the current administration; the handling of the Leah Sharibu abduction; the labelling of the youths of this country as “lazy”; and the indiscriminate killings perpetrated by criminals who appear to be from the president’s own ethnic group, coupled with the official reluctance to deliver justice to the decimated people in this case—all these constitute a poignant demonstration of how not to build nationhood through fostering a sense of belonging. They represent the greatest failure of Muhammadu Buhari as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.