Media Trust, Dialogue and the Re-Imagination of Nigeria,By Adagbo Onoja

It is certain that the masterminds of the Abuja based Media Trust Newspapers’ Dialogue series never imagined the series would have acquired the stature of the foremost forum for unimpeded flow of ideas on and about Nigeria within merely ten years of its birth. Today, that is the truth because, year in, year out, the kinds of people invited to lead discussions at the event are uncompromised. This year’s version last Wednesday at Abuja paraded particularly symbolic identity bearers that are very significant to the re-imagination of Nigeria unfolding before our own very eyes.

Taken at the level of traditions of politics, there was Ms Ann Kio Briggs, a minority right activist; Sule Bello, a scholar; Femi Falana, a pro-democracy combatant and Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah, Nigeria’s own version of a liberation theologian. If you take gender balancing, the selection sticks too. There was no arithmetical balance but an excellent symbolic balance in bringing an activist articulate enough to her grounds. There was one ethnic minority each from the North and the South in the same way that there was one each of ethnic majority identity from the North and South.

This is a sharp contrast to the old arrangement where the ‘syntax of hegemony’ would justify packing different expressions of a class or a race, profession or religion and still call it a dialogue. Those of us who profess economic determinism were most guilty of this. Economic determinism remains the most serious explanation of reality in the last instance but there was error in failing to recognise an equally important reality of life. That is the reality of one person bearing a multiplicity of identity, none of which necessarily contradicts the other. It is only by recognizing this multiple identity principle that we can, for example, cope with a Northerner who happens to be a lawyer, a woman, a Muslim and married to say, a Yoruba from South Western Nigeria, thus carrying about five identities in herself alone.

The identity pluralism in the post modern world has called forth and explains the primacy of mechanisms such as Dialogue, confidence building, reconciliation and the host of other therapies in the rubric of transitional justice all over the world, especially in where the culture of repression, mayhem and carnage have been the painful reality for centuries, from colonial warfare to dictatorship and inter-group conflicts.

All students of Peace and Conflict Studies these concepts and processes dear within the context of the argument that we can re-arrange tomorrow to be better no matter how painful yesterday might have been. Concepts like dialogue, confidence building and reconciliation, therefore, have deeper meaning for peace activists in relation to order and stability which are the minimum conditions for peace in all climes.

This is my context for holding up the Media Trust as making a major contribution through its Dialogue series at a time the is so distressed it is not even able to facilitate dialogue, confidence building and reconciliation whether one is talking of the FG or the NASS, the Judiciary and any other levels of power. Meanwhile, we all profess the modernist kernel which privileges, among others, the imperialism of reason or the never ending interrogation of reality. All these observable features, including the notorious notion of ‘No go’ area make Nigeria an intellectual and political nightmare for practitioners of peace and peace making. Yet, we must keep re-imagining ourselves and the nation itself because we can and must reach higher heights of individual and collective and security corresponding to our unbelievable endowment by providence.

This is where the 2013 edition of the Media Trust Dialogue throws a challenge to all friends of the Dialogue simply because the topic was “Nation Building: The Reality, Challenges and Prospects”.

It is a unique topic because Nation Building remains the most complex phenomenon ever since the 17th Century. More than any of the other powerful ideologies such as liberalism and Marxism, nationalism has been the most successful ideology in human history. This is according to Michael Billig, the author of the very successful book called Banal Nationalism who claimed that, like Christendom or Islam in the Middle Ages, liberalism and Marxism have had to utilize the sovereignty of the nation-state while nationhood itself has known no boundaries in its historical triumph.

Billig is basically right because as he showed in the book, the nation state itself is not founded on any objective, measurable criteria or geographical principles “which if expressed in computer program would produce the present crop of jealously guarded national boundaries”. He came to the beautiful conclusion that “if the so-called objective variables such as those of language, religion or geography cannot predict where state boundaries are to be drawn, then one might presume ‘subjective’ or psychological variables are the decisive ones”

His supported the Professor Benedict Andersons of this world who had said that nations are no more than imagined communities, something that cannot be understood beyond the capitalist origin of its rise and something that will give way only after capitalism itself is superseded by another social system, whatever that system is and whenever it comes. In other words, all those who talk about 1914 being a mistake or Nigeria being an artificial creation are decidedly wasting their time because they are not saying anything.


In this sense, Dr Sule Bello’s attack on Ann Kio Brigg’s ethnic construction of the nation state at the Dialogue was well deserved. Ethnic or cultural compatibility is not a requirement for the modern state. It could even be a problem as we have seen in Somalia, just to give an African example. More so that, unlike France, Germany, UK, etc where the cultural differences are racial, this is not the case in . In the African context, we are one and the same people and cultural pluralism in most of today can be explained better by the invention of ethnicity thesis.

But Dr Bello equally falls into Ann Kio Briggs’s one-dimensional analysis trap when he correctly attribute to imperialism the crisis of nation building but without then proceeding to recognise the fact that the outcomes of imperialist manipulation of domestic politics in are creating independent ripples such as the Genocide in Rwanda that must also be studied from the material basis of that very horrendous conflict even as we continue to interrogate imperialism and nationalism in . If you don’t do this, how do you resolve the devastation of Northern Nigeria today, for example?

I have no problem with both Femi Falana and Bishop Kukah if what I understood Falana to have said, in summary, is that the African state and those who are recruited to run it are both so confused as to make the typical African state an anathema to nation building. The Bishop, on his part and for me, made three points, all agreeable. First is his submission that we need a perspective of why we are what we are in Nigeria. His second point is the notion that it is not the absence of a conflict free society Africa or Nigeria that is the problem but the absence of the statecraft and consensus building leadership across Africa. Third is the position that Africa is probably not looking for a Mandela but a mechanic. Simply put, Africa is broken and it needs a mechanic, not a Philosopher King, to mend it back together.

Ann Kio Briggs turned out to be the strikingly different voice among the speakers since we could comfortably put Falana and Sule Bello in the same cubicle and leave Kukah alone in so far as he was more interested in providing perspectives rather than take any hardline position at this Dialogue. For Briggs, Nigeria was not put together by God but by Lugard. She wished our fore fathers had a chance to participate in a dialogue before Lugard effected his coup. To the extent that they didn’t have, Nigeria is not a reality on their own terms but on someone else’s terms. This, she believes, has complications for nation building, aggravated, according to her, by our refusal to tell ourselves the truth.


One such dishonesty, for her, is impending expenditure of billions on 100 years of Nigeria even when there is nothing to show for 1914 – 2014. Another case of dishonesty is refusal to recognise and respect our differences while yet another is what she called pretending to be building a nation when our loyalty to the ethnic homeland is much stronger than to the nation state. One more item on her list I managed to capture is the paradox for her whereby the South-South sustains the nation economically but gets so little in return, by her own calculation. She regards language as a barrier to nation building as much as she does the ascendant authority of criminality, hooliganism and fraud in state power. Add to her list the over centralization of power in Abuja, and the injustice of Bayelsa’s eight local government councils against Kano’s 44.

These were some of the reasons why she came to the conclusion that “if Nigeria is to stay together as one nation we need each other not as master and slave or minority and majority but as brothers in one nation”.  They convince her that amalgamation was a forced unity and nation building has additionally been compromised by dearth of competent people who could take the from nation building to nationhood.

It was a glorious moment listening to her, not because everything she said made even empirical sense but because it was victory for dialogue. The diversity of the views canvassed reflect the various ways the nation is being seen or being re-imagined. No view is outrightly right or wrong provided we have the mechanic Bishop Kukah talked about, the one with the statecraft and consensus building capacity to re-mould the diverse views into transformative outcomes. In that sense, the trouble with Nigeria is leadership but not leadership in the sense of the social realism of Achebe’s book, The Trouble With Nigeria. Rather, it is leadership in the fraction or faction of the rump of the post colonial elite that magically retains sufficient modernist outlook and the corresponding political capacity to remake Nigeria in that image. This point can be illustrated.

General Olusegun Obasanjo, the Supremo still at the centre of Nigerian politics has, to date, the most profound portrait of Nigeria anybody can think of. Speaking at the Arewa House Workshop in 1984 on the eve of his imprisonment by General Abacha, General Obasanjo declared Nigeria as “a perpetually potentially great, almost permanently in crisis, regularly threatened with disintegration, prolongingly devoid of democracy, and economically plundered and mismanaged, forever talking about democracy but forever retreating from democracy”.

The puzzle is the fact that the same Obasanjo has gone to jail on political grounds since then, come out to mount the apex of power in Nigeria and yet, Nigeria remains as his portrait of it 29 years a go, if not worse. Are we then not entitled to conclude that the British saw too far when they said several decades ago that Nigeria is where “the best may be impossible but the worst never happens”?


Whether the British saw far or were just rationalizing the colonial warfare they levied on Nigeria, what post-Obasanjo Nigeria illustrates is the collapse of the neo-colonial elite in the event of any clash with its conquerors. There is no better example than Obasanjo because he was the one who was so sensitive to the ravages of SAP to the point of coming out to say that it must have a human face. But back in power, he himself crashed under the weight of the pressures of the forces of SAP. Although he retained a capacity to swing between patriotism and subservience, sometimes thumbing up his nose radically and stubbornly against the desires of the international policy mill, it was a system he could not rouse domestic forces to challenge or even cajole to any fundamental concessions.

Seen from this context, we can then see why Achebe is right and wrong at the same time. Achebe is right to centralise leadership but what type of leadership. Why is the bad leader always selected and not the good one? What, in the first case, is the meaning of the word bad when used as a qualifier for leadership in Nigeria? Who has been the best Nigerian leader so far and why? What is the most decisive context of leadership in Nigeria?

These sorts of questions compel us to rely more on history than to essentialize a variable which is, itself, dependent on another variable with more autonomous degree of action. Achebe is, therefore, a good starting point but an inadequate conclusion. Dr Sule Bello offered a more critical, alternative perspective by shifting the explanation from leadership to imperialism. He got it right there except that the problem of grand theoretical explanations prevented him from breaking down imperialism. And this makes him vulnerable to Achebe’s charge through the authorial voice in Anthills of the Savannah that, for practical purposes, we must make a distinction between remote and immediate causes of our existential nightmare in Nigeria. If Bello had done that, the difference between Achebe whom he rated very at the Dialogue and himself as far as the trouble with Nigeria is concerned would have been the difference between leadership failure and elite leadership failure. Elite leadership failure is the trouble with Nigeria.


Everywhere else, the elite thinks for the society. In doing so, it takes care of its own interests and rationalises this successfully by ensuring that it takes care of the others. It is the rationality of taking care of others such as the peasants, the workers and the urban poor or the middle class that you come to have the underground transport network in say, Britain or, in fact, the welfare state itself. The logic is simply that if you do not take care of the others, they will throw the system out of gear. Other wise, we don’t expect to see the welfare state in an advanced industrial society, tying provisioning to public funding as a way of building common ownership of the system. Common ownership is too important to be left to private sector in the West. It is only the Nigerian elite that does not bother about qualitative thinking for the rest of the society. It has no legitimacy there and it is not bothered by that.

It does not think transformatively for Nigeria and it is not embarrassed by it because it is a national elite with historical self-doubt arising from the shock or contradictions of colonial attack on their being. This explains why Obasanjo was demobilized by neo-colonialism in its current form – SAP, deregulation or NEEDS or whatever anyone chooses to call it.

Colonialism came with its own ‘attractions’ and repulsions, producing a thoroughly confused elite which neither accepted it nor could do away with it. So, the Nigerian elite went into independence seeing colonialism as inviting as well as repulsive. It was repulsive from the point of view of the attack on culture and sense of self-worth of the Africans but it was attractive in the powers and privileges of the modern state it has cobbled together and which it was about to hand over to the neo-colonial elite.

Unlike the South African, Indian, Australian or Chinese elite who recognised this contradiction early enough and sought to resolve it in different but progressive ways, the Nigerian elite has been so lost between the two publics, ala Peter Ekeh that it couldn’t decide. The pockets of them that sought a progressive resolution of it were masticated by imperialist propaganda as communists, dangerous radicals or crazy people. What we had left are the stuff who would today, go and take a traditional title back home, return to Lagos or Abuja but only to head for a journey of self-discovery to London the next day. In other words, they are culturally confused and since culture is destiny, according to Lee Kuan Yew, we are jinxed.


So, the Nigerian elite remains like no other. It is certainly not like the South African elite who fought for nearly a century to convert race and class oppression to a multi-racial consensus/democracy. It is not like the Indian elite who have made a historical statement on the possibility of a successful wedlock between diversity, democracy and social transformation. It is not comparable to the Chinese who have equally produced a wonder model on making and sustaining a national choice in the Chinese to communism. And it is not in the league of the Australians who have made a statement in converting locational disadvantage into advantage, culminating in “Australia in the Asian Century”, for an example. Rather, the Nigerian elite is still so lost that all it does is to find beautiful reasons to rationalise failure. If it is not ethnic diversity, then it is North-South ditchotomy or corruption or differences or prolonged military rule.

This essential character of the Nigerian elite also explains the uniqueness of its fragmentation reflecting the historical self-doubt in question. As a result of the historical self-doubt, every little thing is enough to ignite a conflict, ones at that. After so many years of independence, revenue formula is still a source of problem. It is only an elite with no greater goal in sight that can have time for such most unproductive quarrels. Otherwise, there are ‘scientific’ criteria for determining or resolving such problems especially if they could threaten larger goal of national greatness. A self-doubting elite has no grater goal than the self gratification of the moment. Political office is a heroic arrival, a journey of self discovery, a show, good business for the family, the kindred, the clan and the tribe or the religion.

This is aggravated by the lack of ideological cum mobilizational leadership. Without a goal minded elite, the leadership that emerges is one that has nothing to fret about or fight out. That is why no Nigerian leader except Murtala Mohammed has done what Hugo Chavez did in the gift of the Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano to President Obama at the Summit of the Americas on Saturday, April 18, 2009.

It was a statement on leadership, a spectacular act, a reminder and a request. It was so many things put together that even Time Magazine advised Obama to read the book. Nigeria, at least by population, is the leader in Africa. Where is the Nigerian leader who can make a gift of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa to a European or North American leader? Obasanjo could do so if he wanted to be mischievous but not from the same spirit from which Chavez did. Chavez may not be everyone’s model but he did it.

The fourth problem manifestation of this elite is lack of patriotism. Members of the Nigerian elite have no regard for the , certainly not in the same range as s/he has for the homeland. In fact, the average member of the Nigerian elite thinks the is an encumbrance. And we do not have to demonstrate this beyond the nature and character of stealing of public resources across the board in Nigeria, including stealing from budget for basics such as water and medicines.

The fifth manifestation of failure in elite leadership is the weak and overwhelmed state associated with states without patriotic elite behind it. The result is the sixth manifestation which is the present anomie – from arson to kidnapping to pipeline terrorism, to urban revolt to resource militancy, riots, armed robbery and political thuggery. Nigeria is possibly the only in the world where someone has the right to incite others to kill people openly and nothing happens to him or her or them.  All because the state is nowhere to be seen in action, especially since 1999.

An ideologically dead elite, an overwhelmed state and a state of anomie naturally leads to the seventh fault line which is a tight imperialist control. Nigeria is the most controlled nation-state in the Southern hemisphere, from the minutest to the most substantial item on the agenda of power. Nowadays, no nation may escape globalisation in one form or another, including the industrialised nations whose own worry about globalisation is influx of aliens, legal and illegal. But in the case of Nigeria, the most decisive actors in leadership selection are external interests. So, in all cases, the Minister of Finance is almost always somebody approved by Washington. So also the heads of the Budget or the Debt Management Office. It was only during Yar’Adua’s regime that the CBN governorship was not a Washington nominee, one way or the other.

Dependency on outside templates as well as remote controlled key personnel implementing these templates are aggravating even the implementation of reform in Nigeria because these are closed circuit technocrats with no political capacity to even get the people to buy into the logic of reform. Nigeria also never gets a leader who will say, please, Washington, give us a breathing space. We will do all you want but at our own pace. Again, I have heard Obasanjo say this at the most important places where it should be said but, somehow, it is either too little or too late.

There is no reason why Washington, our most senior patron today, prefers that Nigeria remains unindustrialized. As it is, Nigeria is not useful to any industrial economy beyond crude oil. Only speculators and international cuwa-cuwa (predators and ‘mercenaries’) businessmen and women will find anything worth it in Nigeria. A massive population, yes but a massively impoverished one that cannot patronize any goods and services, including its middle class. Why wouldn’t the West empower Nigeria to industrialise and triple its business interests in the same Nigeria? It has done that else where before or is this because Nigeria is in Africa?

The eighth dimension is the abject technological backwardness arising from elite leadership with no developmental strategy. Total lack of technological capacity has led to the ninth criss point– state collapse or the dysfunctional state, characterised by dysfunctional state institutions, social and collapse due to maintenance failure, among others. Here, the most miserable are education, health and transport.

With state collapse comes corruption in the magnitude we know it today because there is a psychology that anyone who could should loot enough quickly before the party is over. That leads to failure number ten while number eleven is the unspeakable mass poverty and the existence of a large percentage of the population under conditions unworthy of human beings. The dialectics of mass poverty is that it is both an effect and a cause.

Reflecting on all these, no one can escape the conclusion that the very nature of the elite/their lack of coherence is at the heart of the Nigerian crisis. Irrespective of whom among them you bring, they manifest a basic strain of leadership, a certain notion of what the state exists to do. The variations between them are not fundamental and that is why none of them ever put his foot down on industrialization as the way to go. I stand to be corrected on this but as far as I can remember, only two Nigerian public office seekers or holders are the exceptions to this terrible reality. One is Professor Jerry Gana (in his 2006 Blueprint for National Transformation) and the second is Aminu Tambuwal (who boldly advocated for a manufacturing strategy in his acceptance speech as Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2011). They might attract Bishop Kukah’s dragnet in their direction in the search for a presidential mechanic as opposed to a Mandela to repair broken Nigeria.

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