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The national question in Nigeria – Part 2

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Nigeria’s fledgling democracy appeared to be on course until it was violently torpedoed by some misguided military officers in the first military coup in the country in January 1966. The coup involved the killing of the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and several high ranking civilian and military officers in the country.

The coup leader, late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was however quickly shoved aside by superior officers who were not part of the planning and execution of the coup. Whatever might have been the revolutionary zeal of the plotters, they had no opportunity to show it.

By the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree No. 1 of 1966, the Federal Military Government assumed “power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria or any part thereof with respect to any matter whatsoever.” This was a classic case of displacement of goals as the Nigerian Armed Forces took on the main business of government allotted to the Legislature and the Executive under the Republican Constitution, 1963.

The soldiers did not only subvert constitutional democracy in the country, they instigated a civil war, the Nigeria-Biafra war which lasted from July 6, 1967 to January 15 1970.

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The end of the war was followed by over 20 years of military dictatorship during which period military dictators dismembered the four-regional structure which existed in 1966 and created 36 unviable states, a Federal Capital Territory and 774 local government areas, most of which remain economically unviable. Unfortunately, those leaders who succeeded military dictators prefer to live in denial rather than address the crucial issue of nation-building. Consequently, 58 years after becoming an independent country, the search for the Nigerian is yet to take off.

National interest and political power
National interest is often mistakenly associated with the interest of an individual incumbent or group in power. This grievous error makes strategic government functionaries, particularly security agencies to victimize citizens who are patriotic and courageous enough to point out the errors, failures and misdeeds of rulers which detract from the ideal of a united country or nation-state.

The fact that a person is a Head of State does not, ipso facto, make him or her a national leader. A nepotistic leader who utilizes his position to bolster his sectional interest is not a national leader but more likely a tribal leader.

Properly construed, national interest must be defined in terms of broad issues relevant to orderly development of a united Nigeria. A true nationalist would promote universalistic values such as meritocracy, democratic governance and rule of law as indispensable tenets of a growing national culture.

Therefore, partisan regimes dedicated to protection of group or class interest represent only sectional interests whatever big names they may assume. Whatever praise singers may say, such leaders have no legitimate claim to national leadership.

Nation building
Nigeria is a conglomeration of about 250 nations spread from the fringes of the Sahara Desert to the Bight of Biafra on the Atlantic Coast in West Africa. The fashioning and building of a nation out of such a poly-national state cannot be left to happenstance. It must be consciously designed, cultivated and nurtured by informed, patriotic and visionary nationalist leadership, devoid of parochial and sectarian bias.

Nation building means that there should be a conscious effort to erect integrative social forces to moderate the potentially polarizing influence of ethnic, religious or group allegiances. National interest should be pursued to the benefit of the whole system, not to the overriding benefit of sections of it.

The national question defined
The national question has been variously conceptualised in terms of several significant questions in the Nigerian society. Principal among these are the continuing relevance of British Design for Nigeria, power politics, problem of minorities, ethnicity, religious fundamentalism, the Igbo Question, the Niger Delta Question, the Middle Belt Question and more recently, Islamist terrorism as well as cultural and class issues.

The national question arises when two or more nations are joined in one state. The Nigerian experience is that perceived oppression by any of the nations against one or more of other nationalities participating in the state enterprise often leads to social tension or threats of breakup of the union.

In an article titled “Whose national conference?” published in THE GUARDIAN, Thursday, June 21, 1990, p 9, Dr. Edwin Madunagu noted that the Nigerian society is increasingly structured against some social groups and classes. He defined the National Question as “the range of specific problems that arise when two or more ethnic groups are merged under one polity and governed by one state.” In the Nigerian context, the questions that arise under this rubric include “ethnic and religious questions” as well as “human rights”.

A genuine National Question is that whose solution advances the interests of the working and toiling population –the overwhelming majority of the people.

The National Question pungently described by late Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1947 and Peter Pan (Peter Enahoro) in 1966, was compounded and aggravated by 28 years of barbaric military dictatorship which lasted from January 1966 to October 1979 and again from January 1983 to May 1999. During this period, democratic governance was banned, constitutionalism was abrogated in place of arbitrary Military Decrees, the rule of law was thrown to the dustbin while the federal structure established at Independence in 1960 was bastardised.

Resolving the national question in Nigeria
On the resolution of issues of National Question, Madunagu argued that “the National Question is a structural question, not a constitutional one. It can only be resolved the same way it was created, namely, by deliberate political decision, sharply and courageously executed. In other words, structural imbalances are not redressed through the application of constitutional provisions. On the contrary, constitutional provisions are made to legalise and formalize structural shifts that have already taken place through deliberate political action. This is the historically correct line that must be urged on the government.” Therefore, resolution of the National Question must be direct, categorical and precise. concluded
Chris O.O. Biose, National Coordinator, team Niger Delta for Atiku/Obi.


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