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Speaking for the nation

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By Obi Nwakanma

Two weeks ago, the political leaders of the South-West and the South-South geo-political zones met with the president and demanded even more emphatically for the conveying of the Sovereign National Conference. It does seem that the president allied himself with that call. And that is a good thing.

There has of course been resistance by some entrenched interests, and voices flowing mostly from northwards, against this call for the Sovereign National Conference. This resistance has been consistent since the idea was first mooted and canvased by the Alao Aka-Bashorun group from early in the 1990s.

In those years, the military leadership often loved to argue that “there could be no two sovereigns” and therefore, the call for a “sovereign” national conference was in their calculationboth imponderable and subversive. But it has proved to be a desire that would not go away.

The idea of the gathering of the nations within this troubled nation is like that Igbo conundrum about the gnat stuck between the scrotum. You smack it, and you risk crushing the scrotum. You leave it alone, and it’d suck the body dry of blood. But something nonetheless has to be done. Nigeria seems nonetheless to be stuck permanently in the groove of instability, distrust, and underdevelopment.

I have just recently been reading the book, My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence by Peter Cunliffe-Jones, published in 2010 by Palgrave Macmillan. Cunliffe-Jones worked in Lagos for the Paris based Agence France Presse Agency as its bureau chief, but more to the point is that his grandfather, Sir Hugo Marshall was the last colonial governor of Western Nigeria. The book is not particularly groundbreaking; just a good mesh of familiar narratives and some personal, autobiographical and anecdotal insight.

However, Cunliffe-Jones, who had arrived in Nigeria with what he suggests to be “colonial guilt” had some striking things to say, which highlights the very nature of the Nigerian crisis. Here, for instance, his meeting with the late Harold Dappa-Biriye who said to this grandson of a former colonial governor in their meeting in Port-Harcourt, “colonization was a positive thing…it brought us enlightenment, civilization…the English language and education united us.”

The emphasis here is the unity that language wrought; the very fact that as theorists of the nation have long noted, the nation “finally, is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism.” I have just quoted Benedict Anderson whose concept of nation as an “imagined community” supports the grounds that in its current form, and by all criteria, Nigeria is already a nation.

Those who continue to question the idea of Nigeria as a nation are either ignorant or plainly mischievous. Some of the critique of Nigerian nationhood have been canvassed on overt ethnocentric arguments; the idea that roiling within Nigeria are irreconcilable spirits of former nations, kingdoms and principalities forced unwillingly together by the British colonial imperium.

Nigeria they say is an artificial creation and therefore incapable of survival as a “single nation” because of its inherent contradictions. The argument assumes that “a nation” can only be made up of a single ethnic affiliation, with same language, same past, same cultural underpinnings – sameness as indeed the basic formal element of nationhood.

Thus we now hear about “the Igbo nation,” “the Yoruba nation,” the “Ijaw nation,” “the Itshekiri,” “the Edo nation,” “the Ibibio nation,” “the Berom nation,” the “Sarawa nation,” the “hausawa nation,” the “Hausa-Fulani nation” – and so on. These affiliate cultures within the multi-ethnic nation called Nigeria do not present contradictions. They can only constitute subtexts or unique identities within the nation, and their very existence cannot necessarily undermine the validity of a coherent, single nation called Nigeria.

In any case, it is an absurd lie that the Yoruba or the Igbo or the Hausa or even the Ijaw all individually share the “same” past or the same history, or even the same culture or genome. Years of interchange and migration made that impossible. The current nation of Nigeria is a complete nation in the sense that it has become the successor entity to all the old empires, principalities and nations, subdued and defeated to create Nigeria. It does not matter that Nigeria is a British creation.

What matters is that the descendants of those whom the British defeated to create Nigeria fought a battle for independence and freedom and have become the inheritors of a bigger, and potentially more powerful nation which has existed for close to one hundred years.

As the centenary of the amalgamation of the North and the Southern protectorates and the founding of the modern Nation of Nigeria come in 1914, it ought be clear that Nigeria as a nation has existed long enough to claim a single past; a shared history; a shared language; and a shared culture. There is something now called “Nigerian culture” and “Nigerian people” and it is not a culture outside living memory. Nigeria as a nation simply put, satisfies the cultural logic of nation.

That said, the call for a sovereign national conference must not be seen as a pull towards the dismemberment of the nation of Nigeria. It is to be taken simply, if nothing else, that “it is good for kinsmen to meet and talk.” But even if we do not feel that charitable towards one another, it is still an opportunity to meet to re-establish the foundations of Nigeria as a modern republic.

Recent threats to the republican idea make that call imperative. The SNC will hopefully open up a path towards the contending facts of Nigerianness – the settled, the unsettled, and unsettling questions of its imbalances. Recently, the South-West political leaders met towards greater regional integration recently in Ibadan.

Two years ago, the South-East began the transition towards regional integration with the formation of the South Eastern Nigerian Economic Commission, SENEC. It is crucial that the SNC meet to restructure Nigeria along these regional governments, for indeed, it is about time.

The resistance from the upper North, and from the National Assembly will only keep postponing the inevitable.Among the great fears by the entrenched interests in the north is the old pre-independence fear of a Southern political and economic domination of Nigeria, and loss of access to oil money. But the move towards regional autonomy, one hopes will never foreclose the rights of citizenship.

In other words, it is time to define Nigeria, and who a Nigerian citizen is, and the rights pertaining thereto. To put it simply: the nation is a shared affiliation, and Nigeria is already one, but if we must, let us redraw the map and free each region of the fear of the other, or work towards creating a peaceful, prosperous, and powerful union. That’s why more Nigerians clamour, and hope for as the aim of Sovereign national conference. And regional autonomy is key.

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