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The Nigerian troubadour: Statehood or nationhood? – Part 2


[FILE]President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledges cheers at the Eagle Square, Abuja, on June 12, 2019. PHOTO: BAYO OMOBORIOWO

It is pertinent to begin with a series of questions. One, what is a nation? Two, is Nigeria a nation or state? What does nationhood mean to the ruling circles? Does Nigeria possess a state-bearing nation? Is nationhood the end of the activities of the ruling elite?  Prof. Calton J. H. Hayes quoted by M. S. Aney in a foreword to Gohwalkar’s (1972) book traces the etymology of the word nation and says, “It is an old word and has gathered much moss with the lapse of centuries. As derived from the Latin ‘Natio’, it meant birth or race and signified a tribe or social grouping based on real or fancied community of blood and possessed presumably of unity of language. A race is “defined by inherited physical markers such as skin colour, phenotype and hair type, which in turn are presumed to be accompanied by a given set of mental and emotional characteristics”. Chief Obafemi Awolowo who emphasised the language component of the national character noted that:

In this connexion we should be reminded that of all the cultural equipments of a people, language is the most formidable, the most irrepressible, and the most resistant to diffusion, not to talk of fusion. It lies at the base of human divisions and divergences. And historical evidences of an irrefutable nature have shown firstly, that you can unite but can never succeed in unifying peoples whom language has set distinctly apart from one another; and secondly, that the more educated a linguistic group becomes, the stronger it waxes in its bid for political self-determination and autonomy, unless it happens to be the dominant group (Awolowo, 1966). (Emphasis in original).

Eric Hobsbawm (cited in Verdery, 1993, p. 38) sees the nation from a dichotomised prism. The nation is a relation of citizenship based on collective sovereignty and mutual political participation in ways that conform with a positivist notion of nationhood with emphasis on utilitarianism, science and materialism in the design of political institutions and conception of social policies appropriate to the needs of the citizenry (Delaney and Delaney, 2002, p. 643). Also, a nation can be an ethnic relation or cultural totality comprising common language, history and other cultural identities. In the debate over the content of the post-communist Polish constitution, Wojciech Cejrowski homed the point:


The NATION is obviously a community of blood history, language, religion, traditions, territory etc…, and it is impossible to become a member of a nation by being granted, by administrative decision, the citizenship of a certain state (Quoted in Zubrzycki, 2001, p. 644).

From the foregoing, two conceptions of nationhood emerge, namely, the nation as ethnocultural entity and as a civic/statal project. The latter conforms with a constructionist view of nation as a social construct. As Verdery (1993, p. 37) puts it:I take “nation,” anthropologically, as a basic operator in a widespread system of social classification. Systems of social classification not only classify; in institutionalized form, they also establish grounds for authority and legitimacy through the categories they set down, and they make their categories seem both natural and socially real. Nation is therefore an aspect of the political and symbolic/ideological order and also of the world of social interaction and feeling.

Considered from the two dominant typologies of nationhood that I have outlined above and scrutinised within the labyrinth of questions that Brubaker (1994, p. 63) posed in his analysis of the national question in the former Soviet Union: “In what sense is the new state to be a nation-state, or a national state? If the state is understood as the state of and for a particular nation, how is the nation in question defined? Is it understood as a civic nation, defined and delimited by the legal and political status of citizenship, and consisting of the sum of the citizens of the state?” I would argue that Nigeria does fit into the latter by aspiration because the civic nation appears to be a blurred goal of the state actors since the first military coup in 1960. The civic nation goal has been elusive due to the hegemonising policies of the state-bearing nation.

Brubaker (1994, pp. 50-51) explicates the notion of state-nation and nation-state in his analysis of the national question of the former Soviet Union. State-nation institutionalises a more encompassing state-wide sense of nationhood, a definition of state-wide citizenry as a nation” while taking cognizance of “the subjective claim to sub-state nationhood” of the component nationalities. The nation-state approximates the situation in which the state is the state of a dominant nationality, a somewhat homogenised state. It may or may not contain some ethnic minorities. However, my idea of state-bearing nation refers to the strategic control of state institutions by a nationality, not necessary dominant demographically in a plural society, but capable of dictating the content and direction of state policies. In Nigeria’s case, the Fulani, a migrant minority nationality, acts as a state-bearing nation. Its hold on the reins of power is not by consent but by the exertion of the material force of the state. Kukah (1993) reveals a duality of method employed by the Fulani in their hegemonic control of the Nigerian state. Firstly, they establish control over the northern peasant minorities by conquest resulting in the Hausa-Fulani hegemony. Secondly, through the counter-coup of 1966, the group’s hegemony was imposed on the country.

The consequence of domination is that the country suffers from a perpetual foundational malaise. Because of the distortion of the civic project, Nigeria is at best a state—a political unity that provides the political frame for its nationalities putatively put at about 500. Isawa Elaigwu provides useful evidence in his biography of General Yakubu Gowon. As he puts it:

One of the greatest contributions of the General Gowon administration was his effort at state-building. By state-building we refer to a process by which the central (or federal) government of a sovereign state makes it presence felt by the citizens by penetrating or controlling subnational political and/or administrative units. It is the ability of the central or federal government to ‘maximize’ or at least increase its authority by the use of certain institutions of penetration control like the bureaucracy, political party and/ or the military (Elaigwu, 1986, p. 154).In the section that follows I shall provide both empirical and subjective evidence to underscore the point being made.


Civic Nationhood: Trajectories and Dissonances
I now attempt to answer the question as to whether the Nigerian project is statehood or nationhood. I shall largely draw from the repertoire of the country’s history and argue here that what the ruling elite in Nigeria have aspired to build is a civic nation and that what is, is statehood in its Hobbesian inversion.  Two, that the effort at building a civic nation foundered because the project has been implemented under the superintendence of a state-bearing nation that seeks to mainstream its preferences on the rest of the component nationalities.

The struggle against colonial rule was pan-Nigerian. The major actors in the struggle, which included Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe who formed the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), later known as the National Council of Nigerian Citizens after the separation of Southern Cameroon from Nigeria and elements of the Zikist movement and the Labour Union such as Michael Imoudu, Kola Balogun, F. O. Coker, MCK Ajuluchukwu, Raji Abdallah, Oged Macaulay, Nduka Eze, Osita Agwuna, Gogo Chu Nzeribe and many others organised the struggle for self-determination from British rule on a pan-Nigerian platform.

The Macpherson Constitution of 1951 sought to homogenise Nigeria on a unitarist route oriented the Nigeria nationalists movement towards building a civic nationhood. They were not thinking in terms of ethno-nationalist terms, they wanted a Nigeria for all. This was dealt a fatal blow by the 1953 Constitutional Conference in London which railroaded Nigeria towards regionalism by the power-conscious and territorial minded “emergent bourgeois political class”. Without doubt, the 1953 Lyttleton Constitution which took effect in 1954 halted Nigeria’s march towards civic nationhood. As Madunagu (2006, p.  199) has rightly noted:
…the regionalisation of political power, or rather, the transformation of the political system into a federal one, with powerful regions and a weak centre, dealt a severe blow on the content and character of militant nationalism in Nigeria. For militant nationalism in Nigeria was born with, and developed within, unitarist consciousness. It could not, and would not, adjust to regionalism.

July 31st, 1953 underlined the dissonance of 1953 as far as civic nationhood goes when he warned of the consequence of “Extreme regionalism both in structure and spirit of the Constitution”. He argued that:
Both in the House of Representatives and in the Council of Ministers, members naturally were expected to act as delegates from the regions. This made it extremely difficult for accredited representatives of the people of Nigeria to think as Nigerians in facing Nigeria’s problems (Record of Proceedings of Nigeria Constitutional Conference in London, July-August 1953, p. 28).

Ita further noted in that same speech that the 1953 Constitution “while quasi-federal, over-emphasises regionalism, thereby playing down the unity of the country and encouraging Regional interests as against Nigerian interest”.

The consequence of a reversion to regionalism was far-reaching. Today, it has come to shape the perpetual tension between ethno-nationalism and civic nationalism in Nigeria, impoverishing the country with the lack of effective government, an attribute that Jackson and Rosberg (1982) has engaged with in a critical analysis of Ian Brownlie’s typology of statehood.

With regionalism already reifying itself, the nationalist at the constitutional conference held in Lancaster House in London debated a pan-Nigerian bill of fundamental rights. It is to be noted that the idea was introduced by Action Group and NCNC with support from Mallam Aminu Kano but was not pursued because of majority of dissenters including the Governor General Oliver Lyttelton (Record of Proceedings of Nigeria Constitutional Conference in London, July-August 1953: 84). This matter however resurged in the 1957 Constitutional Conference and was engrossed for adoption by the resumed Nigeria Constitutional Conference in September and October 1958. Eventually, it was adopted. Chapter Four of the extant 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) present in previous ones originated from this process.

Nigeria entered its post-colonial phase of existence on a federal constitution that granted a great deal of autonomy to the regions under a parliamentary system.  The tension of 1953 was by no means calmed, the lure of power enjoyed by the regional leaders made it impossible to resolve. Rather, a regional notion of power became reified. Those who inherited colonial state institutions at the centre wanted a totalised control of the territorial polity, in other words, the institutions of state and of government. The dynamics of this hegemonic physics of power resulted in the western regional crisis of 1962-65 with the treason trial and incarceration of the leader of Action Group (AG), Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

The incursion of the military into politics, as I have observed elsewhere marked the death of civil society and engendered elite closure (Akhaine, 2018). A military regime is underlined by constitutionality, not constitutionalism, that is, rule by decrees and edicts. The point really is that the central command system somewhat inclines the country into a civic nationhood by the share fact that it does not tolerate regional constraints to its centripetal control of institutions of state and the territorial polity. In fact the Unification Decree 34 of 1966 which unified the administrative and bureaucratic structures of the state dealt a mortal blow on regional autonomy but did not eliminate the contradiction of 1953. It met with resistance from the then Northern region which saw it as an assault on its regional autonomy and led to what Billy Dudley aptly called the ‘Return March of 1966’.

Although autocratic centralism endured, it did so in a perverse form. The aftermath of the civil war allowed for the striking expression of a state-bearing nation which style of rule ironically strengthened the centrifugal forces. As Verdery (1993, p. 43) has noted, “States vary in the intensity of their homogenizing efforts, partly as a function of the power held by political elites and the resistance they encounter”. The state-bearing nation enamoured of control of the territorial polity, enhanced its control of state institutions and conditioned it to suit its ethno-cultural character. Nigeria is a secular state on paper, but the state is the biggest sponsor of religious pilgrimages and the country is enrolled in some international religious organisation such as Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). The stupendous oil wealth feeds the venality of the elite of the state-bearing nation and their surrogates. Often, the other oppressed nationalities are regaled with slogans like ‘Nigeria unity is not negotiable’ while the material force of the state suppresses the quest and demands for justice and equity.What this process has produced is a territorial polity that is neither civic nor national in content but aspirational as can be glimpsed from the stanzas of the National Anthem, both old and new.

Nigeria we hail thee, /Our own dear native land, /Though tribe and tongue may differ, /In brotherhood we stand, /O God of all creation, /Grant this our one request, /help us to build a nation where no man is oppressed, / And so with peace and plenty/ Nigeria may be blessed.
….to serve with heart and might, /One nation bound in Freedom/Peace and unity. /To
build the nation where peace/And justice shall reign.

In practice, the Nigerian state implements domination, not of the dominant class in society but that of the state-bearing nation. At the turn of the last century, the Economist of London noted that Nigeria was a badly divided country and likened it to its football team with talented individual players who however do not play as a team. In 2005, the United States in its Intelligence Report on Nigeria highlighted the unworkability of the Nigerian project describing it as a marriage loathed by its leaders over which no one has been able to enforce a divorce (Quoted in Akhaine, 2008). Also, The Guardian bemoaned the state of the polity and averred in its editorial that:

The present structure has bred identity politics of ethnocentrism, undermined national unity and patriotism, institutionalised corruption, violation of the rule of law and a dehumanisation of the people. These antinomies have also led to state-led violence and enduring separatist impulses on the part of many nationalities that make up the country (The Guardian, June 20, 2016).
The above contradictory dynamics of the Nigerian state only reinforce the ever-self-validating statement of Awolowo (1966) that:
Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’, ‘Welsh,’ or ‘French’. The word ‘Nigerian’ is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.

Conclusion: Anyway forward?
I have argued in the above that what the ruling clique at the centre in Nigeria has laboured to build is statehood not nationhood. Simultaneously, I have argued that the desired destination is civic-nation that is based on a cluster of right under the rule of law. However, the civic-nation project has been truncated through the unconscionable creation of leviathan statehood by a state-bearing nation in a multinational state setting and the corresponding resistance. The pathologies of the failed enterprise such as economic crisis, ethnic violence, insurgency, erosion of the democratic space and sundry social vices often categorised in most analysis of Nigeria are to be understood in the context of the inversion of the civic-nation-state project into a brazen statehood aberration (see Adebanwi W. and Obadare E., 2010). This analysis has shown that the state in its present form harbours the possibility of either to blossom by steering the ship of state into the civic nation haven through reform or double its steps toward inevitable disintegration.


Usman (2000) has articulated elements of national unity by highlighting events and phenomena such as the complex mix of ethnicity and natural factors that could enhance the unity of the Nigerian people. In his enterprise, he failed to acknowledge the presence of a state-bearing nation as well as emphasise the essentiality of justice and equity in ways that undermine the claims of nationalities. Nevertheless, if the current minders of the Nigerian state are persuaded to follow the path of a civic-nationhood, I suggest the following as its constituting elements: common citizenship that guarantees everyone who lives in the territorial polity access to education, housing, health care and gainful economic engagement but within a federal state structure; recognition and autonomisation of the sub-state nationalities as organising units of the federal state in ways that are coterminous with common citizenship (because Nigeria is a country of indigenous people, not a frontier state like the United States of America); and a functional legal order that foregrounds the rule of law.  These prescriptions are predicated on the prevalent realities in the country today. They could be altered by the shifting dynamics of production relations that could be more conducive to building the civic-nationhood, the country’s aspired destination.

It is to be noted that the incumbent administration in Nigeria is not persuaded towards the path of reform of the state system despite its rhetoric. In the context of the widespread call for reform, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo remarked that the administration was opposed to territorial restructuring (Vanguard online, August 28, 2018). This will not resonate well with the restive component nationalities of the Nigerian state. In case, the nation inclines towards disintegration, it should be guided as some have argued to avoid the predictable human calamity.

Professor Akhaine of the Department of Political Science, Lagos State University, delivered this lead paper at the Faculty of Social Sciences International Conference, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, Nigeria


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