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The Nigerian troubadour: Statehood or nationhood? – Part 3

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Nigeria’s flag

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.

And….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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