Nigeria’s 60th independence: In search of a strong, united country
60th Anniversary Lecture on the platform of Association of Retired Career Ambassador of Nigeria (ARCAN)
Our founding fathers had difficulties negotiating the terms of our independence. The result was that 60 years ago, we projected the image of a divided nation and not that of a united country. In London where I served, and where we celebrated independence, we had four legations. The Western Agent General’s office with Chief Akitoye Coker from Abeokuta as Agent General; the Eastern Agent General’s office with Mazi Jonah Achara from Umuahia as Agent General; the Northern Agent General’s office with Alhaji Sa’adu Alanamu from Ilorin as Agent General; and the Nigeria High Commission with Alhaji Abdulmaliki Atta from Okene as the High Commissioner.
We projected the image of an enfeebled nation; of a divided country. It was not the image expected of a strong united black African country. At home, it was worse. A regional and not the national vision prevailed. The idealism of ‘One-Nigeria’ gave way to a much narrower functional vision of regionalism. We embarked at independence on a journey with little awareness of our being one people, one nation. It was evident, that Nigeria was built on a rickety foundation.
We rushed to build along our fault-lines. We consciously widened and deepened our cleavages, instead of narrowing or bridging them. From three regions, we furtively crept into four (Mid-West). From four to 12. From 12 we graduated into 36, sowing seeds of fission and distrust along the way. It was not as if these incremental leaps were motivated or borne out of good-will or were carefully calculated to glue the nation together. They were essentially, if the truth must be acknowledged, the product of greed, malice, vengeance, sectional and parochial maneuverings and personal ambitions. We bonded more as a people when we were four regions — the Mid-West, the Northern, the Eastern and Western regions – than we now do when we are 36 states. I challenge any one of us to reel out without pause the names of our existing 36 states not to talk of the names affixed to them. If, as the advocates maintain that states creation was meant to promote development, may I ask; where now is the evidence of development? Show me.
The end result as we now know and see, staring us clearly in the face, is that our internal fissions have widened and deepened. Far from our being the flying eagle of our dream or the Giant of Africa we had aspired to be, we have all now become sitting ducks. Sitting ducks to a multiplicity of insecurities manifested in the triumph of mediocrity over merit; decay of infrastructures in almost all sectors: power, roads, houses, public transportation, water, jobs and industries.
The root causes are also traceable to our wasteful and flamboyant lifestyle, frequently featured and advertised on birthdays, marriages, obituaries, congratulatory messages by sycophants; predominantly paid for from public funds. Deeply more worrying, is the tragic and hideous cost in property and lives. We do not know or identify who the enemies are. Are they from within or outside our country? However, not all has been gloomy. There have been many bright spots; but have they been enough?
We are now witnessing the rebirth of tribalism in the country. It was rife in the early 40s, during my boyhood days in Lagos, in the days of the nationalist movement and struggle for independence. Soon thereafter, tribalism became an ugly, demeaning word and epithet. Being described as a detribalized Nigerian was a mark of high honour. No one wanted to be labeled a tribalist, or even worse, an arch tribalist. It has now, once again, reared its head transmuted into camouflaged concepts and lingo. We now have names like The Oodua Republic, the proscribed Republic of Biafra, The Afenifere, The Yoruba World Congress, The Ohanaeze Ndi-Igbo, The Igbo World Congress, The Arewa Consultative Forum, The Northern Elders Forum, The Miyetti Allah, PANDEF, The North-Central Peoples Forum and many other such groupings dotted across our country. What a country! Their leaders publicly flaunt their ethnic origins, a few in clownish apparels and colourful caps, some as high as a camel or as big as an elephant, in the name of promoting their cultural heritage.
I respect the organizers of these groupings. I concede to them the right to form and belong to Associations of their choice. Could they, however, in their eminent positions, not have configured their groupings differently to enhance national rather than sectional unity? As highly respected and prominent leaders who had once held positions of trust and power at all levels, are they not conscious of the fact that they are setting a bad example to many who still look up to them as national leaders. Should they not be setting a higher example as notable emissaries of a united country.
There is, in addition, the emerging trend of the narrower concept of nationalities: The Urhobo nation, the Tiv nation, the Ijaw nation, The Ibibio nation and many more. I have my doubts about fads now being projected as national leadership. Why should I be persuaded to subscribe to the notion of nationalities within one Nation? It could be the breeding ground for manipulative, ambitious, ruthless, tribal warlords, posing and masquerading as genuine leaders of their peoples. They feed, very sadly, in my opinion, into the centrifugal forces presently tearing our nation apart.
Let us now briefly touch on a few burning issues of our time. Our Constitution, as imperfect as it may be in parts, is not really the main problem. There is never a perfect Constitution anywhere in the world. The problem is how, in spite of its imperfections, we relate to one another; whether when raising weighty issues like Restructuring, Resource Control, True Federalism and Herdsmen-Farmers Clashes. All these issues must squarely be placed on the table for serious scrutiny and solution. Where there is the will and an open mind to discuss and accommodate each others’ point of view, there is no problem that is impossible of a compromise solution. Where the problem really lies is in closing and slamming the doors to discussion. Weakness lies in having a close mind. Strength, in keeping an open mind. Eventually, through dialogue, a solution acceptable to all would be found; but never expect it to be a perfect solution. There is no perfection in life.
We would like to see our governments at federal and state levels. design special social, cultural and economic programmes, specifically targeted at the grass-root, meant to unify our people irrespective of our ethnic origins. Programmes like the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Technical Aid Corps (TAC), National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) have been helpful; but are losing their luster and the very essence of their being.
Government should, as a matter of policy, embark on those programmes that would unite rather than divide us. Why should state of origin feature in official forms not meant strictly for statistical planning purpose? Why can we not broaden the requirements for state citizenship to include those who have resided in a state for an agreed specific length of time, say, for instance, for more than 10 – 15 years? Why should citizenship of a state not be conferred by virtue of place of birth? Why should the automatic right of citizenship by marriage still be an issue in 21st century Nigeria? Why should we not look again at the misuse and abuse of the Land Use Decree by agencies of the federal and states government and expunge such abuses from our statute books in order to promote a sense of belonging and unity among the ordinary citizenry of Nigeria? Can we increase the number of skilled vocational institutions along the length and breadth of this country to soak in school and non-school leavers, thus making them employable in an era of declining industries, which must be boosted? Can we also, take a second look at some of our national policies like the quota system in education that creates arbitrary cut off marks for students from various states even in the same schools, as basis for admission into federal and state educational institutions? This discriminatory practice invariably creates a feeling of inequality and unfairness and may permanently affect children’s psyche at a very tender age.
Can we tactfully and most respectfully beam some delicate light on the constitutional role of the Council of State and how it is functioning? Should we also do the same thing with the role of the revered spouses of Heads of State and State Governors? Can we declare as completely unacceptable, if not abominable, entrusting to a handful of Nigerians, ownership of oil-wells, which should, with patriotic management, belong to all? May I suggest such ownership be revoked? Can we enact and enforce the most draconian laws to punish treasury looters in high places; sparing none, whoever they may be? These should be handsome and welcome gifts to Nigerians as we mark the 60th Anniversary of our independence: much more rewarding than the palliative hand-outs!
What, for instance, can our governments do with our languages as veritable tools for promoting national cohesion and unity? Can they do more to encourage the learning of Nigerian languages in schools, from the elementary to the university level; establish more open universities, and encourage many more students to take recognized degree courses in our languages?
Another area of intense interest is religion, which is one of our obvious fault lines. Admittedly, it is a difficult, complex, sensitive, delicate and inflammatory issue, in a gaping multi-religious nation like ours. That is precisely why we should strenuously strive to narrow the gap between the faithfuls beyond what is now currently done. A desperate problem requires a desperate solution. We must find a way forward. We should encourage experimentation in Christians and Muslims worshiping together. To incubate this idea, I find appealing the concept of two faiths under one roof. I am not necessarily talking here about sharing prayers perfunctorily, as we now do, on purely ceremonial occasions?
Continued tomorrow on Opinion page.
Olisemeka (CON), Ambassador and former Minister of Foreign Affairs.
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