Tonye Princewill

January 20, 2012

Nationhood or an association of tribes?

Nationhood or an association of tribes?

Day 3 of protest in Kano. Photo : Citizen Usman Mujittaba

By Tonye Princewill

In 1978 the Nigerian Government decided to review the original national anthem drafted into our psyche by departing British expatriates in 1960. As a result of the review a “Nigerian” version emerged. It was the product of an exhaustive nationwide competition which produced 5 winning entries that were ultimately amalgamated into 1, a bit like the Nigerian story.

Arise O’ Compatriots

Nigeria’s Call obey

To serve our Fatherland,

With love and strength and faith …

Do these imploring passages still have meaning for us? If so, how do we explain what is happening today?

Those two questions should agitate the conscience of most Nigerians.

I think that a majority of us are bereft of answers. We have to be baffled and disconcerted by the vitriol and violence that is threatening to seriously rend the social fabric and sever the delicate political threads that bind us and make us a nation.

It is an alarming and disillusioning prospect, a horrid spectre that haunts me in my waking hours and taunts me in my dreams.

I am a Nigerian. I never want to be anything else. I never intend to be. I have no instincts or inclination to participate in any alternative or competing national or regional experiment.

My haunting is not simply due to the protests nor is it only the murderous escapades of Boko Haram–and the counter-killings these have provoked in some parts of the south–that is eating into my psyche. No.

It is something much more ethereal and troubling. It is the tremulous and pulsating plethora of issues and attitudes that make up our national disposition.

The things I am seeing and hearing–massive fuel subsidy protests, columns of Muslims (I personally witnessed leaving Warri for the North), the vapid public utterances that pass for national discourse, such as Boko Haram, Ohanaeze and Egbesu issuing threats asking their fellow brothers to leave town —are eerie and worrying omens.

The implications are, that somewhere along the line we have disconnected from the fundamental values that guided our struggle for nationhood and now form the nucleus around which our collective psyche continues to agglutinate and evolve.

Again, I make this assertion, against the backdrop of a searing national crisis, as manifested in the fuel subsidy issue, regional strife and religious killings—a crisis that threatens our cherished national unity.

There are no easy answers or clear-cut solutions. We are faced with what the novelist John Forsyth once referred to as “the devil’s alternative”: A situation in which all policy options are, in the short term, problematic.

The subsidy must go. There is no doubt about that. But then, I also believe that the ordinary Nigerian must stay: i.e., he must somehow survive. And his survival is a short term challenge. He is resilient.

But so, will Government throw the baby out with the bath water, and allow spiralling fuel prices to create starvation and further exacerbate mass unrest? Can the subsidy be disposed of without price increases at the pump?

I have always argued yes. I’m not an economist. But I believe this should be Government’s approach to the problem—its prime short term objective:

1. Reverse the subsidy to 65 Naira and call it a suspension of the subsidy removal pending further dialogue. Engage the population. Tell them that the reason he is doing this is because even one Nigerian who loses their life is one Nigerian too many. He may attract criticism from some hard heads who believe a leader should be decisive and never change his mind, but the majority will see the Executive as a listening one.

You can still remove subsidy later and I suggest the April 1st target. But only after you have shared the pain around a bit. Mr President’s popularity which is probably struggling to compete at an all-time low with Abacha’s will immediately rebound. This situation can still be salvaged. People still don’t hate him. Yet.

Do this and he will reverse the dynamics immediately and put the initiative back in the hands of the EXECUTIVE. Don’t and you have started the beginning of the end. Yar’Adua did the biggest u-turn in history when he declared amnesty two weeks after he ordered the bombing of Gbaramatu. It ended up being his best move. His legacy. No one remembers the U turn, The Niger Delta became his best friend and the rest they say is history. The casualties of what is happening may extend to every home if we continue along this path.

2. Show that all Nigeria will make sacrifices especially those at the top. You can do this by checking corruption (familiar heads must roll), reducing the size of government (ministers, parastatals, advisers) and cutting costs (salaries, allowances). Visibly, drastically, immediately. This cannot be a promise.

It needs to be an action. No need to tell us you will do it, rather tell us you have done it. Government is too attractive to people who have nothing. Unless we make it unattractive, the people who are prepared to give to society will always be overrun by those who want to take from it.

3. Next but simultaneously he must bring back the refineries to a minimally acceptable level. We all know that our refining capacity needs to be increased. Private investment takes time. Government investment doesn’t or shouldn’t. With a no corruption attitude, you can achieve a marked improvement in months.

Anybody and I repeat anybody asking Mr President to proceed with this removal of subsidy does not wish him well, wants this country to break up, has not gauged the pulse of the country or is not a good srategist. If however we want to break up the status quo and bring the house down, we are right on track.

Looking beyond the subsidy issue, I offer the same plaintive appeal the peddlers of discord and the purveyors of death and destruction, North and South.

Both Christianity and Islam are precious parts of our collective cultural, moral and historical heritage. They are each indispensable to our national well-being.

Yet religion is, in reality, about life. The concept of “life after death,” is actually an affirmation of the value and efficacy of living. It is an extension of life beyond our temporal environment—a renunciation of death.

Killing in the name of religion is, therefore, incongruous and contradictory. It undermines and debases the fundamental tenets of both faiths and tarnishes the glorious legacy of two great religions.

Thus by the dictates of their own religious values, the combatants are compelled to keep the faith and stop the killing.

Partisans of discord, purveyors of death and destruction, have brought us dangerously close to the brink. Do we want Nigeria?

If we do, it means that all tribes, religions and regions must honour the terms of the hallowed oath:

The labour of our heroes past

Shall never be in vain,

To serve with heart and might

One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.

Maybe it is time for a sovereign national conference?