Nigeria’s journey to nationhood in the past 59 years since independence from the British Empire in October 1960, though long enough a time in the history of any nation, has, unfortunately, only covered a very short distance. The very slow pace of Nigeria’s tortuous journey to nationhood has been enabled in no small measure by the unresolved question of national identity. As country of various ethno-geographic groupings, Nigerians are psychologically trapped between forgetting or understanding their differences in tongues and tribes, as canvassed by the founding fathers.
The consequence of the unresolved question of national identity has been the inability of the Nigerian state to evolve an integrated national agenda to maximise its full potential in the past 59 years, as made manifest in its overall poor ratings in the socio-economic development score card thus far.
Out of the Box
From the beginning, Nigeria’s journey to nationhood was poised to be stunted not so much for the colonial misadventure of the British, which lumped ‘’different’’ peoples around the Niger area into a ‘’geographic expression’’ but because of the inability of our founding fathers to look at the entire enterprise of colonialism beyond the narrow prism of politics and see its more important fundamentals of economics.
While Sir Ahmadu Bello, the political leader of Nigeria’s predominantly Hausa-speaking northern region, and the foremost political figure from Nigeria’s predominantly ethnic Igbo Eastern Region, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, could not reach an agreement on whether to forget or understand our differences, they failed to appreciate the similar plurality of our colonial masters that was deliberately coalesced in a British identity. Convinced that Nigeria was a mere geographical expression Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the political leader of Nigeria’s predominantly ethnic Yoruba Western Region, also failed to realise that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is similarly a geographical expression of a plurality of Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish peoples. And, for the many others who get the impression from the words of our founding fathers that colonialism is the bane of Nigeria’s nationhood, remember that Great Britain was itself once a colony of the Roman Empire.
Nigeria’s founding fathers who were pre-occupied with the pettiness of ethno-geographic differences failed to realise that underneath the construct of British identity of our colonial masters are a people as plural as we are. Sir George Goldie, who played the biggest role in the formation of modern Nigeria was Scottish just as Flora Shaw, the British essayist who christened us ‘’Nigeria’’ was of Irish ancestry. At the time of the amalgamation of the protectorates of the North and South of Nigeria into one entity in 1914, the British crown was seating on the head of King George V, an ethnic German who was the grandson of Queen Victoria by her consort, Prince Albert of Germany, through their son King Edward VII. Just as our founding fathers variously identified as Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, so were our colonial masters individually identifiable by their ethno-geographic ancestry. The difference was the ability of our colonial masters to rise above primitively rigid territorial identification by adopting the common identity of their shared geographical expression of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As no nation is truly blessed by abundance of human and natural resources, the British were united in their concerted effort to shore up the wealth of their nation through the acquisition of overseas territories to expand trade and investment for the economic benefit of their homeland. This is precisely what the constituent peoples of Nigeria have not been able to achieve 59 years after independence.
Our founding fathers who apparently considered our colonial masters racially homogenous (White) and British, failed to appreciate our own racial homogeneity as Black people. They considered themselves different from one another on the basis of circumstantial ethno-geographic location and biological happenstance, hence too diverse to be a nation. However, Nigeria does not qualify as a diverse country, as diversity is benchmarked on the basis of race, not ethnicity.
The constituent peoples of modern Nigeria, like the British, are racially homogenous, with intricate ancestral linkages and similarities in culture, language, tradition, norms, history and proximate geography predating the colonial era. That these constituent peoples did not see themselves as one people and evolve into the super-country structure that is modern Nigeria before British colonialism was indicative of late national evolution arising from a low level of civilisation in a contemporary world.
Therefore the question of whether to forget or understand our differences need not arise in the first place because there are no differences. Nigeria is not made up of different but various ethno-geographic groupings. A plural country as clearly distinct from one that is diverse, Nigeria’s ethnic multiplicity is only a manifestation of a variety of the same broad homogenous Black race.
Unfortunately, our founding fathers did not understand our realities from this perspective. By resolutely insisting on our being different, our founding fathers negotiated from the British a country that would be federation rigidly structured along ethno-geographic fault lines. This rigid structure is made inorganic as it does not allow for integration and assimilation of Nigerians wherever they choose to reside within the federation.
Without a mechanism for seamless integration and assimilation of Nigerians outside their regions of origin, with full political and economic rights accorded them, our fathers did not found a nation of citizens but a country of indigenes. This faulty foundational configuration of the Nigerian state would be the bane of Nigeria’s socio-economic development 59 years later.
As country of indigenes whose loyalties are primarily to their micro-ethno-geographic nationalities, no system designed for a modern nation of citizens has worked for Nigeria. From the Westminster-style parliamentary federal system at independence in 1960, to centralised military rule and the current American-style executive presidential system of the Fourth Republic, none has worked positively for Nigeria because of the faulty configuration of its structures of state.
In a country of indigenes such as Nigeria, law and order will always be undermined by culture, tradition and religion because constitutionalism and democracy are conceptualised for nations of citizens.
National economic policies and state institutions will always be ineffective and weak on account of being undermined by sectional tendencies. National interest will always be sacrificed for sectional interests in a country of indigenes like Nigeria.
By far the most devastating consequence of Nigeria’s faulty structural configuration is that, as a country of indigenes, Nigeria’s constituent micro-ethno-geographic nationalities are divided in the struggle over control of revenue accruing from its internal oil mineral resources. This struggle has resulted in a divisive form of politics of ethno-geographic and religious identity that is being championed by the elite across the country to the detriment of national development.
Identity politics has only served the personal interest of the political elite, as they have devised numerous means of keeping the country divided while reaching a consensus among them on how to equitably distribute Nigeria’s resources through zoning and rotation of power. Being cocooned in this crucible of intense struggle for internal resources has put enormous pressure on the Nigerian state arising from the strain of unbridled corruption, uncontrollable insecurity and economic inertia. Sadly, we, the people, have legitimised this elite consensus to rape our national patrimony by our own sectional proclivities that make us look upon ourselves as irreconcilably different from one another.
To reposition the Nigerian state on the path to sustainable socio-economic development will mean to resolve the fundamental question of national identity. A resolution of this crisis of identity can only be achieved by an overthrow of the current elite consensus to divide and rule, by a people’s consensus guided by the self-enlightened realisation that we are one people, irrespective of our varied ethno-geographic identification.
In order to realise the maximum potential of the enormous promises of Nigeria, there should be a deliberate move towards evolving Nigeria from a country of indigenes (Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba), where internal resources are shared to depletion, into a nation of citizens (Nigerians) that is well managed and competitive enough in the race for global resources.