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The National Question (3)

By Obi Nwakanma
In March 1964 (not 1947), Mallam Bashari Umaru introduced a bill in the Northern House to “revoke forthwith all certificates of occupancy in the hands of the Ibos resident in the North” to which the Northern Minister for Lands and Survey, Mr. Ibrahim Musa Dagash responded:“I would like to assure members that having heard their demands about Ibos holding land in Northern Nigeria, my ministry will do all it can to see that the demands of members are met. How to do it, when to do it, all this should not be disclosed.”

This was of course long after the Western region’s seizure of Dr. Azikiwe’s property in Ikeja in 1956 by the government under the Action Group.

It is quite ironic that today, the Hausa residents of Jos are confronting what the Igbo faced in the 1960s in the north: yesterday, they were the “indigenes” of the North, today, they are “non-indigenes” in Plateau state. The condition of Nigerian citizenship is impermanent and slippery and based on strict and immutable location.

That is the foundation of Nigeria’s crisis of nationality and the summum bonumof its national question. This question is about citizenship rights. It is about the formation of a nation based on the rights of the individual to be guaranteed equal security, equal opportunity, equal obligation and equal protection by the nation whose citizenship he or she claims.

The false binary between the “indigene” and the “citizen” is again, one of the terrible legacies of the Nigerian state inherited from the party policies of the Action Group and the Northern Peoples Congress, and particularly enforced as a national policy by the military governments in the post war years which ironically claimed “national unity” as the legitimizing credo of all their interventions in Nigeria’s body politics.

This irony is important because the military system of every nation, bar Nigeria’s, is its single most unifying national institution. In the case of Nigeria, it just happened that the Nigerian military became the single most destabilizing agent of nation.

The reason of course is that it was the conservative, right-wing, and revanchist arm of the Nigerian Armed Forces that took power in Nigeria and shaped the nation in its image. Part of its means of maintaining power was to sustain the divisions and fissures within the architecture of nation as well as upturn the foundations of Nigeria’s republican and secular ethos.

Its first act was to suspend the charter of the republic embodied in Nigeria’s 1963 Republican Constitution. In the course of military tyranny and its insistence on obligatory and symbolic citizenship, more Nigerians became alienated from the idea of the nation: the nation was no longer a vital protector of the individual but an oppressive and exploitive form of internal colonization.

Rather than phase out the old and exhausted “tribal potentates,” the military found new uses for them and maintained these institutions and indeed created more warrant chiefs, almost straight out of Lugard’s text of colonial domination.

The effect is actually quite remarkable: Nigeria is the only modern republic that continues to give validity to the old principalities and exhausted, magi-cube kingdoms, empires, and caliphates from whose presumed death the new nation was forged.

These kingdoms, autonomous communities, Emirates and Caliphates today present the alternative affiliation with nation for most disenchanted Nigerians. Many now also find greater tribal feeling in new religious communities –mostly of the charismatic and fundamentalist variety – that speak to the apocalyptic futility of being in Nigeria.

These also have put in danger the question of the obligations of the citizen to nation. Over the years, in reaction to disenchantment with the idea of the nation they inherited, and as an act of resistance to the sense of internal colonization, more and more Nigerians have turned to the protective fold of these sub-national identities from where to stage their resistance. It is a form of psychological withdrawal to something familiar, smaller and manageable.

The consolation of alienation for the outsider for whom Nigeria and being Nigerian adds very little value. Since the republic cannot guarantee their full rights as citizens, it seems quite logical that the agitation for a renegotiation of what it means to be Nigerian be at the center of the national question.

Here then is the paradox: while the Igbo, by their unique circumstance in Nigeria have been the original victims of the Nigerian situation, the unresolved question of the contract between the nation and her citizen now confronts every Nigerian in unique ways.

I think the first point to be made in this sense is that Nigeria’s social contract must be with the individual citizen and not with any ethnic affiliation. This is where the agitation for the national conference continues to mirror the paradox of nation.

The agitation is for a different sort of contract that would broker more regionalist tendencies. Such a position prescribes limited citizenship and settled identities. But the history of man reflects a contrary truth.

The attempt to renegotiate Nigeria must proceed from the truth that the nation is a single, open and accessible field and that citizenship is individual; that the nation’s obligation is to the individual and not to an ethnic group.

Cultural right is an individual right. Economic right is an individual right. Political right is an individual right. These become ethnic or group questions only when individuals, identified as one unique group, are targeted collectively for oppression within the nation.

I have consistently used the Igbo example in my column to reflect the Nigerian paradox because the Igbo as a group represent the face of the Nigerian problem. But the Igbo alone do not bear the Nigerian burden. Every Nigerian who has suffered discrimination, violence, insecurity, and lack of opportunity in Nigeria has become a victim of Nigeria.

The primary task therefore is to examine the grounds and ask these fundamental questions: is Nigeria viable as a single corporate nation? Would the decoupling of the federation resolve its historical conditions?

Should Nigeria fold its tents and disperse, or should Nigerians begin that process that should insist on reforming the inequities in Nigeria’s social contract and reformulate the nation based on the principle that wherever anyone lives in this federation, the rights of citizenship confers upon them equal obligation as well as equal protection? That is the national question.


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