Nigeria at 61 and the bane of identity politics



By Majeed Dahiru

On October 1st 2021, Nigeria marked its 61st independent anniversary as a notoriously corrupt country that is the most terrorized poverty capital of the world. This does not come as a surprise to many because Nigeria’s journey to nationhood has been stuttered, halted and eventually put on a reverse mode by its political leadership over the years.  The lack of national unity, which is a fundamental condition preceding any form of socio-economic development  has been a major factor militating against the realization of the Nigerian dream of a cohesive, strong, peaceful and prosperous nation 61 years after independence.

 Convinced that the constituent peoples of Nigeria were irreconcilably different to such an extent that a united, cohesive and strong Nigerian nation could not evolve from the 1914 British created country of Nigeria, Nigeria’s founding fathers will go on to negotiate an independent country with a federation that is structured along ethno-geographic fault lines. Whilst, the first republic Nigerian federation of three and later four regions substantially satisfied the requirements of fiscal federalism, its structural rigidity along ethno-geographic fault lines, which was without a mechanism for the assimilation and integration of Nigerians wherever they chose to reside outside their region of origin with full political and economic rights extended to them effectively made Nigeria a country of indigenous tribesmen of the over 500 constituent ethnic nationalities and not a nation of citizens.

 As a representative constitutional democracy, the first republic federation, which was structured along ethno-geographic fault lines inevitably, gave rise to a political culture of ethnic, regional and religious identity. And with identity politics becoming entrenched in the polity meant that the democratic leadership recruitment process of Nigeria’s political leaders will be primarily determined by primordial sentiments of ethnicity, region of origin and religion. Consequently, the post independent political leadership class of Nigeria in their bid to retain their privileged positions devised sundry means to deepen the dividing ethno-geographic fault lines by influencing their respective peoples to always align their democratic choices with their ethnicity, region or religion. This was how a solid foundation for a Nigerian state that will be increasingly weakened by the ravages of identity politics up until 2021 was laid and concretised 61 years earlier at its independence in 1960.

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Unfortunately, Nigeria will once again embrace identity politics following the transition from military to civil democratic rule in 1999. Retrogressive in nature, identity politics is divisive, parochial and bigoted and negates every norm of modern nation building. And if identity politics is allowed to take root in the political system of any country, as has been the case of Nigeria in the 21 years of democracy, it will spread like a cancerous cell and sap life out of that country. Sadly, after 21 years of civil democratic rule in Nigeria the promise of dividends of democracy in the form of improved welfare and security of lives and properties remain largely elusive no thanks to the collective wrong choices of Nigerians aligning their democratic choices with their ethnicity, region and religion.

 The purveyance of identity politics has made Nigerians both accomplices and victims of corruption induced economic dislocation and heightened insecurity. In identity politics the seeds of corruption were sown. This is so because the only reward system for identity politics is patronage at the expense of the public treasury. Therefore, such corrupt practices as nepotism, cronyism, tribalism, favouritism and all other forms of sectionalism are legitimate cultural tools by the  elected and appointed representatives of the over 500 ethno-geographic groupings in government to extract from the common wealth [national cake] to their respective sections of the country. In Nigeria, corruption is normalized by culture, sanctified by religion, rationalized by intellectuals and affirmed by politicians hence intractable.  If the principle of zoning and rotation of elected and appointive offices among the competing ethno-geographic groupings in Nigeria that was adopted by the 4th republic political leaders was intended to ensure the equitable distribution of resources, then it not only failed to achieve the objective but actually resulted into the equitable distribution of loot by conniving political leaders from all divides. Consequently, Nigeria’s identity driven political process has degenerated into a criminal franchise of power grab by the political elite for self service at the expense of the public treasury to the detriment of public service.

While Nigeria may not be a failed state yet, the country is undoubtedly exhibiting mild symptoms of state failure, which includes but not limited to [a] the loss of control of its territories and the monopoly of the use of legitimacy of force within those territories, [b] increasing erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions and [c] inability to adequately provide public services. It is important to note that the causative pathogen for the afore mentioned symptoms of state failure, is always and almost the inability of failed states to resolve their question of national identity as a means of achieving a united, just, fair, egalitarian and strong nation state. From British India, Somalia, Sudan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the absence of a political leadership that is able to rise above primordial sentiments of ethnicity, region and religion to build a nation where fairness, equity, justice and peace reigns is primarily responsible for state failure. Nigeria and troubled countries such as Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq have something strikingly in common; their leadership recruitment processes are firmly hinged on the politics of ethno-geographic and religious identity, which has given rise to sectional, parochial, clannish, bigoted and divisive leadership. 

Many Historians and political commentators have attributed Nigeria’s problem of identity dissonance to the British colonial misadventure of lumping together different peoples without much in common into a single geographic entity by the amalgamation act of 1914. Variously described as a ‘’mere geographic expression’’ that was a ‘’mistake’’ Nigeria it would seem was programed to fail even before its beginning. However, contrary to the entrenched narrative that says Nigeria is a country of people with too much irreconcilable difference to be a united nation, historical, cultural, linguistic, anthropological and sociological evidences suggests otherwise.

The peoples of Nigeria long before the British amalgamation of 1914 shared deep and close cultural, linguistic and traditional ties within a common geographic area extending beyond the borders of modern Nigeria into Benin, Niger, Cameroun and Chad republics. A mostly mono racial [Black] people, the various ethnic groups, tribes and kingdoms of pre-colonial Nigeria have interacted through diplomacy, trade and war fare; interactions that served as a means of assimilation and integration of  the peoples of Nigeria long before British colonial incursion into continental Africa. There was a pre-existing traditional citizenship system in pre-colonial Nigeria, which allowed for the seamless assimilation and integration of individuals, families and communities wherever they chose to reside within Nigeria of old. If diversity is to be measured in term of the racial composition of a geographic entity, then a mono racial Nigeria hardly qualifies to described as a diverse country. Nigeria is best described as plural country because the various ethnic groupings such as Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Ijaw, Nupe, Igala, Tiv, Kanuri etc., are simply a plurality of the same one big Black African linguist and cultural family.

Great Britain, Nigeria’s colonial master was once a Roman colony between 43 and 410 AD. And like the Black mono racial peoples of Nigeria, mono racial White Britain was a plurality of ethnicities. Sir George Goldie who played the biggest role in the formation of modern Nigeria was Scottish just as Flora Shaw, the British essayist whose suggestion was the name ‘’Nigeria’’ was of Irish ancestry. At the time of 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 Nigeria’s founding fathers variously identified as Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa so were their colonial masters individually identifiable by their ethno-geographic ancestry. The difference was in the ability of their colonial masters to rise above primitively rigid territorial identification by adopting the common national identity of their shared geographical entity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland [British].  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. The simple economics of colonialism remains the most important lesson unlearnt by the Nigerian people 61 years after independence.   

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