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The national question in historical perspective


J.F Ade Ajayi

J.F Ade Ajayi

The ‘National Question’ has become like a code name for all the controversies, doubts and experimentation, that surround our search for stability, legitimacy and development. Essentially, the National Question concerns the fundamental basis of our political existence, that is to say, our Constitution as the basic law, which governs the co-existence of Nigerians as individuals and cultural groups within one political system or state.

It involves the sharing of power and management of our resources in terms of access, control and distribution. It therefore involves not only such issues as revenue allocation and the creation of states and local government areas, but also education, religion, language and cultural policies.

Ordinarily, our Constitution should reflect our consensus on these fundamental issues, the basis of sharing power and managing our resources. The government that emerges from such consensus should reflect our common interests, enjoy legitimacy, provide us with stability and mobilize our resources for development. If such consensus had existed, we should be able more often to take our constitution for granted and focus our political discourse on issues beyond that consensus. However, we know that such a consensus does not exist, and the National Question continues regularly to dominate our discussions.


The frequency with which our rulers suspend, amend or rewrite our constitution is partly evidence of our lack of consensus, and partly cause of our instability. Since independence, we can count three new Constitutions (1963, 1979 and 1989); five suspensions or modifications each time there is a change of government due to a coup d’etat (January 1966, July 1966, July 1975, January 1984, August 1985), and five other modifications due to the creation of states and or local government areas which affect the balance of intergroup relationships (1963, 1967, 1976, 1989. 1991). This is in addition to other modifications from time to time during the latter stages of the current transition programme.

Such instability promotes controversies, doubts and anxieties, which are summed up within the expression ‘the National Question’, – national because of the underlying assumption that though we may not be a nation yet, our goal is to become a nation state. Thus, we describe our movement to secure independence from the British as a nationalist struggle, within the ideology of nationalism. At independence, we were accepted as a member of the United Nations. Our main task since independence, we refer to as nation-building, that is, trying to weld all the different ethnic, linguistic, or cultural groupings in Nigeria into a nation state.

The National Question therefore is the perennial debate as to how to order the relations between the different ethnic, linguistic and cultural groupings so that they have the same rights and privileges, access to power and equitable share of national resources; debate as to whether or not we are on the right course towards the goal of nationhood; debate as to whether our constitutions facilitate or inhibit our march to nationhood; or whether the goal itself is mistaken and we should seek other political arrangements to facilitate our search for legitimacy and development.

The Problem of Minorities
We created 12 states, then 19, then 21, then 30. The demand continues. At this stage it is no longer clear what the criteria for the creation of states are. Is it dispersing the centres of development and bringing government closer to the people? But several of the states are now of doubtful viability. When, for example, will Jigawa become viable and Dutse play the role of a centre of development? Are we trying to resolve the fears of minorities? Yet each time a new state is created, new animosities are created, such that people from Osun State are no longer welcome in Ibadan, or people from Akwa Ibom in Calabar, and even school children must be pushed out of school to follow their parents involuntarily. And can we ever solve the problem of minorities by the creation of new states since each new state will have its minorities? The Ijebu of Ogun State, I am told, want a state of their own. The moment they achieve it, the Remo would become a minority, and find the “oppression” from Ijebu Ode more onerous than that from Abeokuta. And would a Remo State not have its minorities?

The main effect of having so many states is that the states are now no longer centres of development, and so do not bring anything tangible nearer to the people other than to act as channels for receiving Federal funds. The real effect therefore is to increase the powers of the Federal government and weaken the role of states. In fact there seems to be a clear policy of reducing the power of the states and promoting centralism. This is found not only in the formula for revenue allocation, but also in the creation of Local Governments as a third tier of government, funded directly from the Federal Government. There are now 600 local governments. Many are financial liabilities, and they are all top heavy with officials and salary bills.


Our Motto is Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress. These are all noble sentiments. But, with the possible exception of Faith, they are secondary virtues, derivative of other more primary virtues. Even with Faith, instead of the fear of God as a primary virtue, and belief in goals and ideals outside and beyond self, we rather practice Religion that centres ON Self and separates us from “the others”. In this regard, I have often wondered why we do not have Justice, perhaps in place of Unity.

I found an inscription in front of a Court in Bergen, a port on the western coast of Norway, which someone translated for me as “Justice Unites”. If the truth of this may not be readily demonstrable, we, can at least testify that nothing militates against our unity so much as various acts of injustice, – economic, political as well as judicial, – that we perpetrate. Without a sense of justice, the implementation of various policies and programmes – such as ‘that of federal character’ – promotes disunity rather than equity in the distribution of rights, privileges and amenities. Consider the control and management of our oil and other mineral resources, the reservation of government appointments in key ministries and parastatals to particular groups, or the whole, history of resource allocation in the new federal capital.

As a result of injustice, there – is growing frustration and genuine bitterness in some places. Some Nigerians look down on others. Some communities are seeking for liberation just as they felt under British rule. Some feel that they have become second, if not third class citizens. Some are calling for Confederation, others for a dissolution of the Federation, Others wish to return to the situation of 1885 and have the post-colonial Nigeria re-fashioned to be successor to the states as they existed at that date. But there is no way we can return to the past. Historians stress the need TO study the past so as to understand the changes going on in the present, not that we should seek to return to the past, even if we can agree on what the past was in 1885. As indicated earlier, states were not based necessarily on ethnic or linguistic groupings. Even under the Caliphate, the Hausa were not one state; nor did the Yoruba or the Igbo constitute single political entities.

It is not history, or the social anthropology of ethnicity, but bitterness arising from a sense of injustice that leads Ken Saro-Wiwa to advocate a dissolution of the Federation along the lines of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, though hopefully not through the path of Yugoslavia’s ethnic cleansing. He advocates a new arrangement under which each of more than three hundred and fifty ethnic groups will have autonomy:

“The central government would be very weak and would, have responsibility only for foreign affairs, customs currency (possibly). and inter-state relations. The civil servants at the centre would be, representative of each national unit -appointed on merit (sic) through competitive examinations. Defence, education, health and all other responsibilities would inhere in each ethnic group or unit. ‘…there would be no need for a central army since Nigeria has not been under military threat… This will stop coups permanently. The central government would be sustained by contribution from the different states …according to their ability and or populations… The Muslim states will be free to join the OIC – Organisation of Islamic Cooperation

I believe that it is because of injustice in government, not inability to live together in poly-ethnic or multi-national states within the context of Pan Africanism, that leads to the unending call for the creation of more and more states and Local Government Areas. This is not to deny that there, is also the factor of those wishing to manipulate or exploit the sense of injustice of the masses for their personal greed. Yet, even if every clan were declared a state or local Government Area, and the Federation dissolved into a Confederation of the 16,000 communities, without a sense of justice and concern of rulers for the welfare of all under them, there would be demands for partitioning the clan, backed up by histories of discord in the past and oppressions in the present.


The assumption that you are more likely to get justice, or have your interests promoted under a government headed by someone who speaks your language is natural, but not borne out in reality. While looking for solutions to the National Question through constitutional engineering, it should be stressed that we need also to consider the values, the morality and sense of justice of those who aspire to be our rulers.

I have tried to show the historical factors, global, African, and Nigerian, that led to the evolution of Nigeria as a nation-state, with a federal structure, and within the context of Pan-Africanism. Nowhere is nationalism, nor are nation-states ready-made. It is a plant that can grow if properly nurtured and tended; if not it can be choked by greed and injustice. In spite of our having fought a Civil War, we still have not worked out the consistent policies that we need to sustain and nurture our national integration. What we must stress is that we need Nigeria. Some people think that because of the federal structure and the problem of nationalities, Nigeria is too difficult a country to govern, and that they would be better off on their own. What we must stress is that as there are problems in keeping Nigeria together, there will be many problems in trying in unscramble it, and the problems of putting it asunder may in fact be more than the problems of re-negotiating the basis of the “Agreement”.

We also need to be more conscious of our role in Africa and the African diaspora. Nigerian nationalism is meaningful only within the Pan-African context. We must not forget that we seek stability and legitimacy in the pursuit of social and economic development. In the world of the European Common Market and progress towards a European Community, an Africa of over fifty states does not need more mini states out of Nigeria. Rather, we need Common Markets and Communities at the Regional and Continental levels. Our hope should be that if the Nigerian Federation succeeds, it should eventually be a model for restructuring the rest of Africa.
• Being excerpts of lecture delivered by J.F. Ade-Ajayi, Emeritus Professor of History at the fifth Guardian Lecture in November 1992.

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J.F Ade Ajayi
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