Nigerian Politics and Question of National Unity

By Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum

President Muhammadu Buhari, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, while receiving the report of the National Security Summit of May 26, 2021, organised by the House of Representatives, remarked that ‘we are a lucky country and should congratulate ourselves, despite challenges that could have torn us apart.’ More than any time, since the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, the survival of the country as a united nation is being threatened. Although, at all times, there were issues that reminded us of our divisive backgrounds, often manifesting in terms of political demands by sections of the country, this is the first time Nigeria is experiencing secessionist agitations from two groups from two sections of the country – Nnamdi Kanu’s group in the South-East and Sunday Igboho’s in the South-West. These are agitations, which have assumed the forms of civil disobedience and in the case of Nnamdi Kanu’s group in South-East, it has graduated to rebellion against the Nigerian state, resulting in attacks on police stations, kidnappings and killings of security personnel and other functionaries of government as well as destructions of government structures.

With the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East, which has dragged for over ten years now and the unfortunate loss of thousands of lives, destructions of both public and private properties, the recent secessionist agitations of Nnamdi Kano and Sunday Igboho require effective and efficient responses to maintain Nigeria as a united country. Noting also the rising incidences of banditry in the North-West and North-Central, producing more cases of kidnappings and abductions of law-abiding citizens, including schoolchildren, challenges of national survival is basically about strengthening the capacity of Nigerian security agencies to prevent and arrest criminal activities of rebellious groups in all parts of the country. In the midst of all these is the task of preventing or managing conflicts arising from activities of herdsmen, which is engendering all manner of clashes between Fulani herdsmen and other citizens, especially farmers, across all parts of Nigeria. Criminal activities associated with herdsmen have increased incidences of banditry, kidnappings and abductions of citizens.

Although challenges of insecurity in the North-West and North-Central have not taken the form of organised civil disobedience or insurgency against the Nigerian state, it has certainly reached the level of war against innocent citizens. Remarkably, the South-South region of the country, which used to have higher incidences of kidnappings and attacks on oil installations, at least up to around 2007, is now, relative to the other regions, with the least of incidences of disruptive activities. Whether low incidences of disruptive activities mean it is the safest section of the country, is entirely a different matter. Somehow, the Niger Delta Avengers, who were responsible for attacks on oil installations across the South-South region in the past, are now threatening to resume their old disruptive activities against the Nigerian state, according to them to protest government’s neglect of the region.

All these contribute significantly to the tense inter-ethnic relations between and within all the six geo-political regions of Nigeria, thereby responsible for rising cases of ethnic and communal conflicts and violence. Issues of equity, justice and fairness, both with respect to distribution of resources and representation in government are the main political demands requiring responses to meet the expectations of Nigerians from all the six geo-political regions. Cries of marginalisation and neglect with contestable justifications are very loud across all parts of the country. It is simply either demand for restructuring/true federalism or power shift/rotation of Presidency between the Northern and Southern parts Nigeria.

These demands mean different things to the different regions. Consequently, perceptions of contemporary challenges of Nigeria are different across all the six geo-political regions and from the different ethnic groups. Therefore, expectations are also different even when the demands are made in the same vocabulary. To a large extent, the distinctive attributes of the different geo-political regions that constitute Nigeria and the ethnic groups from the respective regions is responsible for why the same demand is interpreted differently. The overarching challenge basically is how, as a democratic nation, political structures can facilitate the process of consensus building and agreement among the constituent parts of the country – the six geo-political regions and all the different ethnic groups.

The extent to which therefore the details of the demands from the six geo-political regions are clarified by political leaders based on which they are able to commit themselves to agreements that translate to initiatives that unite citizens is the critical challenge of Nigeria’s contemporary political development. How are political leaders handling this critical challenge? Are there initiatives being taken to facilitate consensus building and agreements by political leaders from the six geo-political regions of the country? To what extent are processes of consensus building being driven by lawful institutions in the country? How representative are the different sections of the country’s political leadership in the processes of consensus building? To what extent are political leaders committed to agreements reached?

No doubt, there are efforts by successive political leaders, especially since the end the civil war to facilitate institutionalised processes of consensus building in the country. Whether those processes have produced agreements among the constituents’ parts of the country is also a challenge. However, the fact that national unity remained under threat, even on a bigger scale, is indicative of either the absence of agreement or lack of commitments by political leaders to implement agreements. Part of the growing challenge is that commitment of political leaders from all parts of the country to facilitate processes of consensus building is more and more diminishing. How can we, as a nation, push our political leaders to be more dedicated to facilitating processes of consensus building and at the same time become more committed to implementing agreements therefrom?

Difficulties in developing or strengthening initiatives to facilitate national unity in the country has engendered situations whereby all sections of the country are contemptuous of one another. High contempt for one another has also created unhealthy dynamic such that when initiatives for national unity are introduced, they become additional incentives for sharper divisions in the country. Rather than political leaders from the respective regions engaging initiatives to facilitate consensus building in the country, the initiatives escalate the problems of national unity. Every initiative then widens the problem of national unity. It is more of a vicious circle of endless agitations to resolve problems of maginalisation, injustice, unfairness and so on and so forth. Almost every Nigerian and every section of the country is complaining of almost the same problem.

Endless vicious circle of agitations to resolve problems of marginalisation, injustice and unfairness has created atmosphere of deep-seated frustrations by most Nigerians from all sections. It is also responsible for the anger against political leaders and political establishments. Consequently, public commentaries are antagonistic against elected leaders and the ruling party – President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC). Arguably, the belief is that President Buhari and the APC are the problem. Anybody who is associated with them is condemned and projected to be part of the problem. In the same way, every analysis of challenges facing the country, which attempt to highlight any progress being made on account of initiatives by the APC administration led by President Buhari is dismissed and condemned. Some critiques have argued that the APC and President Buhari also used the same approach to defeat the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, which is debatable.

It is important that the point is stressed that politics is about choices and every citizen should have the inalienable right to make his/her political decisions. Part of what civilisation require is to respect the choices made by every Nigerian even if we disagree. Inability to respect one another and the choices we all make only stabilise the nation in this season of ethnic contempt, tension and endless conflicts. In all the public outcry against the APC and President Buhari, for instance, even when opposition make valid recommendations to resolve the challenges of national unity, they are not presented with the aim of winning the minds of elected leaders, and to that extent therefore get them to consider adopting and implementing the recommendations. In the same way, when elected representatives initiate actions to resolve challenges facing the country, there is hardly efforts to win the support of citizens.

This reality has stagnated Nigerian politics such that almost everything is about election and everyday become election day. All discussions of resolving Nigeria’s challenges then become about voting out the President and his party right from the day he is inaugurated. Unless and until, Nigerian politics is developed in such a way that elections go beyond who emerges as a leader, which happens only every four years, to the point when it is expanded to include engagements between leaders and citizens to contract support for initiatives being taken or to be taken in order to address challenges, national unity may continue to elude us as a nation and problems of avoidable conflicts leading to loss of lives and property will continue to confront the country.

Issues of equitable representation in the country’s leadership by the six geo-political regions and their constituent ethnic groups will remain permanent political demand. Regions may continue to produce Nigeria’s leaders with hardly any justification in terms of governments being able to respond to specific challenges facing the particular regions where leaders emerge. For instance, what was the benefit to the South-West throughout the eight-year tenure of former President Obasanjo? Or what was the benefit to the South-South to justify the six-year tenure of former President Goodluck Jonathan?

While it is true that ethnic politics based on regional contests for the leadership of Nigeria will continue, Nigerians should elevate politics to the level of active engagements to influence choices leaders make, on the one hand, and contract support of citizens for initiatives being taken by leaders, on the other. As important as the question of ensuring that there is equitable opportunity by all the six geo-political regions in terms of who emerges as Nigeria’s leader, specific governance reform agreement to be implement in all the six geo-political regions are required. Why should any region or ethnic group produce a President and at the end of the tenure of such a President, there is nothing in terms of physical development of the region to justify that such a region has produced the President of Nigeria? In the same way, why should the other five regions of the country support the emergence of a President from any one region without agreement that translate to regional developments, covering all the six geo-political zones?

As a nation, both citizens and political leaders need to come to terms with the reality that we all need each other to be able to build a nation that guarantee good livelihood for citizens from all sections of the country. Nigeria can fulfil its destiny as Africa and world power with leadership that is a rallying point for good governance based on fair representation, justice and equity. It is debatable if any of the constituent parts and the respective ethnic groups – Igbos, Yorubas, Hausa-Fulanis, Tivs, Efik, Igbibios, Urogbos, or any other individual ethnic group can attend greatness and satisfactorily fulfil the aspirations of its members. Democratic governance offers Nigeria the rare opportunity to reorient the politics of the country to develop the framework for continuous engagements, negotiations and agreements. For this to happen, Nigerian politics must produce political leaders who are able to embrace all parts of the country as their constituency and engage political leaders from the regions based on capacity to support them to provide new leadership to their people that is able to win support for political agreements, which may not be simply about cheap access to elective and appointive positions by the regions.

With such political leadership, the blind and dumb perception, which prevent people on both sides of the ethnic divide from recognising the real challenge of national unity can be purged from Nigerian politics. What is the real challenge of national unity? The real challenge would appear to be largely driven by what the political economists, David P. Levine, in the book, Politics Without Reason: The Perfect World and the Liberal Ideal, described as desire that leads to destruction. According to him, it means ‘the construction of desire as a force that demands exclusive possession. This exclusivity suggests a connection to two emotions: greed and envy. Desire is greedy in the sense that it is to have and hold all that is of value: the true or worthy self of which, in the end, there can be only one. It involves envy because this desire to have the one true self must exclude others who in failing to gain honour experience envy in its place. The problem is that desire is inextricably bound up with greed and envy so that the pursuit of desire’s object must bring with it conflict and destruction.

This is one of the best explanations of the challenge of national unity facing Nigeria. Every region wants to have exclusive possession of whatever is of value in Nigeria. Inextricably, it produces greed and envy. Political leaders from all sections want to ‘exclusively possess Nigeria’ – the assets and the power to control the territorial boundary to the exclusion of other parts. Regions that are not in control or being controlled become resentful. Today’s conflictual and destructive reality of what we have as Nigeria is a direct consequence of the inability of the nation’s political leadership from all the regions to commit themselves to processes of consensus building so that greed and envy arising from desire by all the regions’ political leaders for exclusive possession can be stopped or at least reduced to the barest minimum.

Sadly, almost all Nigerians are now active participants in all the conflict and destructions that is consuming the country produced by the raging desire for exclusive possession of everything of value. Political leaders and ordinary citizens of all the regions are hardly interested in initiatives that can facilitate consensus building, which is required to end current conflicts and destructions as well as prevent future occurrences. All the demands coming from all the regions of the country are more about increased possession, if not exclusive possession. Choices in terms of equitable and fair access to Nigeria’s resources, is at best a derived demand. Tragically, everybody, not just partisan politicians, engages this issue very defensively, mainly to protect current hold and win more possession. Private business people, professionals, academics, diaspora citizens, traditional, religious, community leaders, women, youth, civil society, labour activists are all active campaigners to protect current hold and win more possession for our respective geo-political regions.

Campaign for equity, justice and fairness, which should be about finding the right balance for the country become limited to self-protective scheming, often directed to defend the repressive framework, which undermined capacity of political institutions to serve as vehicles for consensus building in the country. Part of the problem, which is resulting in further compounding the challenge of national unity is that Nigerian politics has succeeded in transforming almost every political leader into a regional leader. Instead of nationalist leaders who prioritise initiatives that can unite Nigerians, many political leaders are simply regional leaders who only engages politics with the objective of ensuring that they protect what they imagined their respective regions control, and where possible seek to increase the scope of resources being controlled.

When the campaign is about restructuring or true federalism, it is hardly about raising the productive capacities of citizens or governments at all levels across all sections of the country. It is also hardly about expanding the scope of productive activities so that more processing capacity can be developed resulting in industrial growth of all parts the country. When the campaign is about power shift or rotation of presidency between the Northern and Southern parts of the country, it may not necessarily include specific initiatives to resolve regional challenges, which could then facilitate resolution of critical problems faced by citizens in those regions where the President come from such as insurgency, banditry, kidnappings, abductions, etc.

Now that 2023 politics is heating up, what is it that can be done specifically to ensure that Nigerian politics begin to focus on mobilising political leaders and establishments to facilitate national unity? First things first; Political leaders from all the six geo-political regions must recognise that they can’t have everything. Therefore, the notion of exclusive possession of everything of value in Nigeria is impossible. Ab initio, political leaders and citizens must recognise that something just has to give for regions to maximise what they can have. The spirit of sacrifice by all will be required in order to guarantee any prospect for regional development under a united Nigeria. It however needs to be stressed that any choice made by political leaders, should not be expected to be perfect or unassailable. If choices made by leaders are to achieve the desired objectives of meeting the expectations of Nigerians, they must be engaged by both citizens and leaders must also recognise that they need to engage citizens to be able to win their support.

How Nigerian political parties are able to transform themselves into active platforms for political negotiations to strengthen the unity of Nigeria is the major problem confronting the politics of the country now. The more this task is reduced to expression of regional agitations for demands for restructuring/true federalism or power shift/rotation of presidency between the Northern and Southern parts of the country without addressing the substantive issue of negotiating the details of what all these should mean for all the six geo-political regions, the more national unity will continue to evade our politics. In fact, the more our respective regions will continue to be shortchanged by self-appointed leaders who are least qualified in every respect to speak on behalf of our regions. Otherwise, how could someone like Nnamdi Kanu emerge as the representative of Igbo people from the South-East. These are people who in every field of life have produced very well accomplished, knowledgeable, inspiring and charismatic leaders such as the great Zik of Africa, Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Alex Ekwueme, Chinua Achebe and in contemporary times Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, Ken Nnamani, Enyinnaya Abaribe, the two Innocent Chukwumas – the industrialist and the late human rights activist, Allen Onyema, Ngozie Okonjo Eweala, Olisa Agbakoba, Chima Ubani, Emma Ezeazu, etc.

Similarly, how can a lackluster looking character like Sunday Igboho be the spokesperson of the knowledgeable Yoruba people of the South-West, the home of the great Awolowo, Chief M. K. O. Abiola, Chief Bola Ige, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Chief Alao Aka-Boshorun, Prof. Wole Soyinka, the noble Ransome-Kuti family, Chief Bisi Akande, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and many leaders of human rights and pro-democracy struggles who have given all their lives to the struggle for Nigeria’s development as a united nation such as Mrs. Ayo Ogbe, Mr. Femi Falana, Bamidele Aturu, etc. The same is also the case for all the other regions. Take the case of Boko Haram in the North-East and compare the quality of political leaders the region has provided the nation. It is quite pathetic that a rag tag leader like Shekau could emerge to hold the region captive with a richly endowed and some of the best leaders the country and the world can celebrate.

Inability of Nigerian politics to facilitate political negotiations and consensus building is responsible for the current difficulties facing all the geo-political zones of the country. The big question is whether the contest for leadership of the country in 2023 will prioritise processes of national consensus building through negotiations and agreement. Will political leaders from all the six geo-political regions commit themselves to implementing agreements that can strengthen the bonds of unity among citizens from the six geo-political regions? What could be the details of such agreements? And to what extent could the agreements meet the expectations of citizens from all the six geo-political regions? Beyond which region produces the successor to President Buhari, what will be the commitment of the post-2023 Nigerian President to specific agenda of regional developments of both the region he/she come from and the other five regions?

Invariably, how will our political parties respond to the challenge of mainstreaming initiatives to facilitate consensus building activities, involving negotiations and agreements to produce the right balance for equitable, just and fair access to Nigeria’s resources by all sections of the country and all citizens. Will parties and their leaders take steps to produce leaders from the regions who can facilitate the unity of the country? Or will parties continue to prioritise issues of regional/ethnic politics at the expense of national unity? At the same time, will parties be able to ensure that once there are agreements on issues that have implications for national unity, leaders are committed to their implementation unassailably? Is there even any prospect that the question of national unity will be a major political agenda of any of our parties?

All these would require specific agenda setting initiatives within our respective parties. It is never given. Party leaders and members must work hard to initiate actions within parties. For those of us in APC, the process of re-organisation going on in the party present an advantage. For instance, it should be possible to commence a campaign to review provisions of the APC manifesto to strengthen political initiatives for national unity. Part of the projection should be to get the next National Convention of the party adopt a new manifesto, which would highlight major commitments of the party for national unity to be use during the 2023 campaigns. Integral to the campaign for national unity is the issue of how the party intend to handle negotiation for the emergence of the standard bearer for 2023 elections. In many respects, these are issues that should be handled internally within the structures of the party with all the confidence that principles of justice, equity and fairness can be achieved.

Perhaps, it is important to remind our leaders about the point made by the American Political Scientist, John J. Measheimer, in the book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, to the effect that ‘Politics is essentially about who gets to write the rules that govern the group’. According to him, the responsibility of who writes the rule ‘matters greatly because the members of any society are certain to have some conflicting interests, as they will never completely agree about first principles. Given that basic fact of life, whichever faction writes and interprets the rules can do so in ways that serve its interests rather than its rivals’, or reflect its vision of society rather than its rivals’. Of course, power matters greatly in determining which faction wins this competition. The more resources an individual or faction possesses, the more likely it is to control the governing institutions. In short, in a world where reason takes you only so far, the balance of power usually decides who gets to write and enforce the rules.’

This means that the campaign for power shift, which is about writing or respecting the rules of our parties, should be handled within the structures of the APC. There will always be conflicting interests in terms of who determine how agreements are reached internally within parties. The reality of our contemporary development as a nation in this Fourth Republic, since 1999, is that during the sixteen years of PDP tenure, processes of respecting political agreements within the PDP have been mismanaged and undermined. With the emergence of our party, APC, in 2013, our leaders were able to skillfully handle negotiations for leadership based on strategic consideration of winning the votes of Nigerians. APC leaders must return to that 2013 mode and handle leadership negotiations for 2023 very carefully and skillfully. APC should continue to work towards setting the right standards for Nigerian politics, which should prioritise national unity!

This position does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum