Was there a Country? By Chido Onumah


Two compatriots have commented publicly on the title of my book, “Time to Reclaim Nigeria”. At the public presentation of the book in Abuja on December 15, 2011, the special guest, Osun State Governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, in his presentation, “In Search of True Federalism”, noted: “This mission to reclaim Nigeria however is a little bit problematic. To attempt to reclaim something suggests that it was in your possession ab initio. Beginning from the forceful amalgamation in 1914, the despotism of colonial rule leading to independence in 1960, the hegemonic conspiracy of post independence military dictatorship, civilian interregnum of 1979 to 1983, the return of the military and the new era of civil rule in 1999, Nigeria has hardly ever belonged to Nigerians. To attempt to reclaim what you never had therefore is a misnomer.”

In a five-part review of the same book, eminent columnist, Edwin Madunagu, had this to say: “To reclaim, as I understand it, is to take back.  I am aware that this ideological slogan, together with Occupy Nigeria, is now popular with radical patriots, democrats and human rights activists in Nigeria.  But I doubt if the Nigerian masses had, at any time since Nigeria was created in 1914 and especially since independence in 1960, owned Nigeria”.

I agree with the two positions above that the Nigerian masses have hardly owned the country. But there is also another side of this debate about reclaiming Nigeria, which is whether we actually have a country in the true sense of the word. That is what I intend to address in this essay. My preliminary comment about this poser is that nominally there is a country called Nigeria. That is, Nigeria meets the internationally recognized definition of a country. It has “internationally recognized boundaries, has a government, has external recognition”, etc.

The Chambers Combined Dictionary and Thesaurus defines a country as “the land of any of the nations of the world”. Going by this definition, a country presupposes a nation. The same dictionary defines a nation as “the people living in, belonging to, and together forming, a single state”. Wikipedia, the online dictionary gives a more elaborate definition of a nation as “a tightly-knit group of people which share a common culture. Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people, larger than a single tribe or community, which share a common language, institutions, religion, and historical experience”.

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From the preceding definition, it is clear that Nigeria is not a nation. It is also not a nation-state as some people erroneously argue. When Nigeria was created in 1914, it was not a union of the different “nations” that made up the geo-political space that came to be known as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, but a merger of three regions (the northern and southern provinces and Lagos Colony) that had been under colonial administration for many years. In essence, the country was not created on the basis of the distinct “ethnic nationalities” in Nigeria.

What this tells us is that we needed to build a nation out of the contraption that was created in 1914. Nigeria in 1914 was like an “arrangee” marriage. Such marriages are not meant to work beyond the financial and other benefits that necessitated the union. If on the other hand, the spouses find out that they “love” each other and actually have something in common, they can build a purposeful and lasting relationship. The survival of such unions can’t be taken for granted. Those involved have to make conscious efforts to make the marriage work for it to survive.

This is exactly the position Nigeria has found itself almost a century after its creation. Beyond the fact that, to some extent, the different groups in Nigeria share a common historical experience, there has not been any conscious effort to develop a common ethos, if not a common culture, language, or national institution. This phenomenon is aptly captured by Maduabuchi Dukor, Professor of Philosophy at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka in his contribution to the Sovereign National Conference debate.

“The concept of Nigeria since 1914 amalgamation of the north and south has phenomenologically waned socially, politically and economically,” Dukor notes. “Social, religious, and ethnic conflicts constitute a life style; the political pond is characterized by the interplay of the forces of disunity  where the end justifies the means; and the fiscal and economic policies of successive governments are theoretically and practically against the poor (about 75 per cent of Nigerian population).” Essentially, what we have witnessed since that forced marriage in 1914 is an exacerbation of the fault lines in Nigeria. It led to a military coup barely six years after independence, and a civil war followed soon after. It worsened when crude oil, because of the ease of the return on its investment, took over as the only source of income for the Nigerian state.

Today, the politics of oil looks certain to rip the country apart. State governments, and sundry groups across the country are at each other’s jugular over who should get what or who controls what. But it shouldn’t be so and hasn’t always been so. Agreed that the politics of oil is fundamental to the current crisis, but we will be mistaken to think that it is the only issue that threatens the survival of Nigeria because even before the commercial exploitation of oil, the country could not be said to be united any more than it is today.

Over the years, bad leadership and the attendant impoverishment of the Nigerian masses has served to devalue what it ought to mean to be Nigerian. The belief of Nigerians in their country has waned considerably, not minding the occasional bout of nationalism, as for example, when the country won the gold medal in football at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, or recently when South Africa kicked us in the gut by deporting over 100 of our citizens for allegedly possessing fake immunization papers.

Majority of Nigerians do not feel an equal possession of the space called Nigeria. The structure of Nigeria is so lopsided such that injustice, be it political, economic, or social, has become the rule rather than the exception. Statesmen are in short supply whether we are talking about those who managed the country immediately after the civil war or those who have ruled the country as military or civilian presidents. That explains why Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abaubakar, two ex-rulers of Nigeria, have become regional champions, spearheading a regional dialogue when they ought to be in the forefront of a national dialogue to save Nigeria. It appears the only dialogue they want to have is a monologue.

To be continued.

Onumah, author of Time to Reclaim Nigeria, writes from Abuja.

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