By Afe Babalola
“55 years of independence has not changed the issue that matters to the National Election of Nigeria. It would take much more than a slogan of “unity in diversity” to remove ethnic identities and idiosyncrasies which had become deeply entrenched with a psyche of the average Nigerian.”
LAST week I referred to the book titled “State of Africa” written by Martin Meredith to highlight the fact that Nigeria is not alone in Africa as far as diversity of its citizens is concerned and that other African Countries with whom Nigeria shares a common colonial history have the same features.
In a list containing the ranking of 169 countries according to ethnic diversity of its peoples prepared by James Fearon, Nigeria is ranked 18th with a score of 0.8 and 0.6 in ethnic and religious fractionalisation respectively, with a score of “1” signifying the highest degree of diversity and “0” being the lowest.
African Countries such as Cameroon (6), Ghana (13), Uganda (4), South Africa (8), Tanzania (2) and Liberia (5) were all ranked as being more ethnically diverse than Nigeria. As a matter of fact 17 of the top 20 most ethnically diverse countries are all in Africa.
This is obviously due to a shared common heritage of colonialism in which unnatural borders, encompassing different ethnic identities into one nation were drawn up by the colonial authorities in the rush for Africa. In his book Martin Meredith also stated as follows about the birth of most African countries:
Martin Meredith on the birth of most African countries
As the haggling in Europe over African territory continued, land and peoples became little more than pieces on a chessboard.
‘We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were,’ Britain’s prime minister, Lord Salisbury, remarked sardonically to a London audience. Britain traded the North Sea island of Heligoland with the Germans for Zanzibar, and parts of northern Nigeria with the French for fishing rights off Newfoundland.
France exchanged parts of Cameroon with Germany in return for German recognition of the French protectorate over Morocco. By the time the Scramble for Africa was over, some 10,000 African polities had been amalgamated into forty European colonies and protectorates. Thus were born the modern states of Africa”
How did we get there?
The push by the founding fathers of the country for independence of Nigeria was driven by a vision of a strong and united country which as projected by international observers was expected in no time to become a world economic and political power. That the new nation would be made up of over 200 ethnic identities was not seen as a problem but was on the contrary regarded as a unique feature which would ensure a strong and united country. Many of the issues discussed at Lancaster House related to the distinct identities of the numerous ethnic groups which were by the amalgamation of 1914 brought together under one constitutional banner.
These leaders realized the need to come up with a structure that will preserve the identities of the component ethnicities whilst at the same time allowing for the enthronement of nationalistic sentiments and ideals.
It therefore did not come as a surprise when the Independence Constitution provided for regional governments across the country. By this arrangement each region was allowed to develop at its own pace utilizing resources available to it.
There was a healthy rivalry amongst the regions in areas of education, agriculture and healthcare. While the West became renowned for Cocoa production, the East and North turned to Palm Oil and Groundnut respectively. Some structures and public utilities built from revenue derived from these sources remain till today.
Regional and tribal cause
However no sooner had independence been achieved than reality began to set in.
It quickly became clear, particularly on the political terrain that it would take much more than a slogan of “unity in diversity” to remove ethnic identities and idiosyncrasies which had become so deeply entrenched in the psyche of the average Nigerian.
For one the main political parties were formed among regional lines and among the main tribes of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Talk of and attempts at national integration were sometimes regarded as a betrayal of the regional and tribal cause.
As the military coups of 1966 and 1967 would later suggest, the military, the very institution constitutionally required to protect the country from external aggression had itself become overtaken by the same tribal and ethnic sentiments and considerations which had derailed and distracted the political class from the noble and nationalistic objectives they had before then continually proclaimed.
Upon the return to democratic rule in 1979 it was felt that the nation would gradually experience a real integration of its people. Schemes such as the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) had by then been designed and put in place to produce a new generation of Nigerians free of all ethnic colorations of old and inspired only by nationalistic considerations.
Well, three military coups later and after 16 years of uninterrupted democratic rule (after yet another transition from military to civil rule), it appears that the considerations of old are still with us. It does appear, as they say, that old habits die hard!
For example in the run-up to the last elections, more attention was given to religious and ethnic considerations than there was to the political ideology of the parties and their candidates. Several months before and right up to the adoption by the parties of their candidates issues of whether or not the main political parties would adopt muslim/muslim, muslim/Christian or Christian/Christian dominated the media.
The reason for this was simple. 55 years of independence had not changed the issues that matter in national elections in Nigeria. The media and indeed the politicians themselves recognised that despite all public pretensions of national considerations, the ethnic and tribal identities of their candidates would matter above all other considerations come Election day.
As the elections grew nearer, each main party seemingly assured of the votes in the regions of origin of their respective candidates turned all their attention to the south-west.
Solution to this problem
However there needs to be a change. It really should not matter whether a candidate is Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba. As far as suitability for political office is concerned, what should matter the most should be the political ideologies of the candidate, the manifesto of his party, his record of service and overall preparedness for service.
As things stand, I doubt if an Igbo man will be able to win an election to the National Assembly in any of the core northern states. I also doubt the ability of a Hausa to achieve the same feat in the East.
While some politicians of Igbo extraction were indeed elected into the House of Assembly of Lagos State, I do not think that event alone is justification for any hope that such a feat might soon be replicated in other states.
Way out: So what is the solution to this problem? Should we, as has been done over the course of the years, continue to pursue vigorously a policy of national integration without firstly identifying and acknowledging those very factors which stand us apart from one another? Furthermore, is our constitutional framework at the moment sufficient to guarantee the kind of integration and unification needed to bring about a true nation?
To be continued