December 20, 2015

The new country we need, by Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi

It’s time to abolish reputation, outlook of dwarfism

Nigerians on independence day

When I survey the state of the world, I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens when he wrote the following in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

It is the best of times for researchers, commentators, observers etc as events in all parts of the world fill the airwaves about Syria, Paris, Iraq, Mali, Maiduguri, Yola, Kenya, and the filth called presidential campaign in the United States. So much to comment upon. But the content of the events fills me with horror. World leaders are clueless about how to respond to challenges and fear seems to rule the world. It is indeed the worst of times.

But, today, in this our own corner, we come to celebrate. At the back of my mind is the lamentation of a former foreign diplomat, who served in Nigeria, who told me “you Nigerians achieve so little but celebrate so much”. This is not the case on this occasion. We are not just celebrating a man, we are celebrating a Nigeria that once was, with the hope of a regeneration.

In 1959, a young Ijaw boy (now a venerable old man), aged 24 years, left what is now Akwa Ibom, travelled to Ilorin, then Lagos, then Ibadan and then Zaria, back to Lagos and then back to Ibadan where he had stayed for the rest of his life. There was once a country (my compliments to Chinua Achebe).

That is not all. He met a Yoruba lad, the late Lawrence Arokodare, in 1962. They bonded, looked out for each other, worked together, established a joint company in the 60s and, till today, that company is still thriving as a joint venture despite the death of one of the partners. Hear what Rev Etteh has to say about his partnerships: “People who work and live with me have seen the spirit that operated in Lawrence and I, that we, when we started our journey together in life, gave no precedence to strife and discord, we were completely unaffected by tribalism or prejudice. This is one reason  I still take care of my late partner’s family; they still invite me for any events and special occasions that may arise. I care about Lawrence’s wife and his children. I don’t have a bias over anything or anyone that still belongs to him till this day. Both of us were known back in the 60s and 70s as people who accommodate all tribes, …” There was once a country.

Yes, there was once a country, where a Mazi Mbonu Ojike, an Ibo, would be a Deputy Mayor of Lagos, where a Umaru Altine, a Fulani, would be a Mayor of Enugu, where an Eyo Ita, an Ibibio, would be Leader of Government in the East, where Professor Kenneth Dike, an Ibo, and Professor Tekena Tamuno, an Ijaw, would be Vice-Chancellors of the University of Ibadan. In 1962, the political crisis erupted in the old Western Region when the state of emergency was declared in the region, Chief (Dr.) Majekodunmi was appointed the Administrator and a young army Captain, Murtala Mohammed, was appointed his ADC. I was in Ibadan then and saw both of them worship in Christian churches. In 1966, when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was released from prison in Calabar and flown to Lagos, it was a young Major Murtala Mohammed who volunteered to drive him to Ikenne. In 1975, when the then Brigadier-General Murtala Mohammed took over the reins of government, his ADC was Lt. Akintunde Akinterinwa. Both of them died together in 1976. Yes, there was once a country. There was once a country when, in 1957, one Felix Okonkwo was appointed a member of the Northern House of Chiefs. According to Senator Ben Murray Bruce: “So integrated was Okonkwo into Kano society that he was known….as Okonkwo Kano” (Thisday, November 30, 2015). What a country we once had.

The two immediate questions which I need to address are: What changed? And what is the way forward?

For clarity, let me register this fact. The volume of cross-country movements or migrations is greater today than when Revd Etteh left Upenekang in what is now Akwa Ibom State. There are more cross-cultural marriages now than then. That institution of immense potentiality at birth, the National Youth Service Corps, should take credit for these cross-cultural developments. But, and this is the crucial question: Are we more integrated, more united, today than in the 50s, 60s and 70s?

The answer is a categorical no. We must resist the temptation to manufacture evidence. The evidence is all around us. We have fought a civil war, there are continuing threats of secession, there are loud cries of marginalization coming from all over the country. Or as the 2014 National Conference put it “since independence, millions of Nigerians of different tribes and faiths have lost their lives, and that children have been orphaned, women have been widowed, men, women, boys and girls have been maimed, hopes have been dashed, dreams have been shattered and properties have been destroyed, on account of conflicts brought about by the absence of genuine national integration and in total disregard of the tenets of our faith to truly love our neighbours as ourselves”. New words have crept into our political lexicon such as power rotation, our turn, quota, catchment area, federal character, etc. From the beginning of political activism in Nigeria, until 1999, roughly for a period of about 150 years, there were several federal elections involving the founding fathers, namely Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Shehu Shagari and not once was an election fought on the basis of “its our turn” or “power rotation” or any such abracadabra lexicon.

Zoning syndrome

Yet, in 1999, the military government at that time decided to award the Presidency to the South-West on a rotation basis thereby introducing a new pernicious term into Nigerian politics. Can we get back the Lawrence and Etteh Nigeria from the post 1999 malaise? Of course, politicians will be politicians and will use anything to sell themselves. But there is hope out there if only we look out for it. Something has escaped the notice of everyone. Oh yes, everyone can recite the fact that General Buhari ran for office in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. The implication of this has escaped all but a few. My interpretation is that by running against Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Jonathan, General Buhari explicitly rejected the rotation and zoning syndrome in Nigerian politics. My interpretation is further buttressed by the fact that in every political party, their primaries had candidates from different zones. Dr. Alex Ekwueme contested against Obasanjo in the PDP, Atiku contested against Jonathan in the PDP, while Okorocha contested against Buhari in the APC primaries. So, there is still a silver lining out there.

More evidence that all is not lost. Mrs Grace Brent, a lady from Osun State, was elected a senator from Adamawa State. Pastor Ben Akabueze from the South-East was, for 16 years, the Commissioner for Economic Development and Budget in Lagos. But we must resist the temptation to misinterpret data. In the last election, in Lagos, Chief Oghene Eghoh, Mrs Rita Orji and Mr. Tony Nwoolu were elected into the House of Representatives to represent their constituencies. This has been touted as evidence of new nationalism. It is nothing of the sort. Their constituents were primarily from their ethnic stock. Of what benefit is that. Even the Pharisees do the same. It is when a different ethnic group picks you as its representative that a new nationalism is born. Yes, there was once a country.

But I have not addressed the issue of how did we get from the Nigeria of Lawrence and Etteh to where we are now, although you might have guessed. Politics dragged us there. Drawing from Etteh’s memoirs, you can tell when the rain started falling on our heads. He remembered when in the 1960s, his friend, Lawrence, got the company where he worked, Ove Arup & Partners (OAP), to invite Etteh to Ibadan to take a job only for some people to castigate Lawrence for not recommending a Yoruba man for the job. The date of the incident is instructive. 1963/64 was right in the midst of the political crisis created in the Western Region after the declaration of the state of emergency in the West by the Federal Government. The Yoruba of the West were feeling very much under siege. Of course Nigerian history then became an apt illustration of the Swahili proverb which says, “You don’t need to teach anyone how to fall into a ditch. Just take the first off the edge and other steps will follow”. Nigeria descended into insurrection in the West, two coup d’états, and a civil war. From then on, Nigerian politics became deeply rooted in ethnic-driven sentiments.

If truth be told, appointments at the federal level became a battleground between the East and the West as merit was thrown overboard. People now got the impression that what you got at the Federal level depended on the ethnic colouration of the Minister and Permanent Secretary. In other words, the descent of politics into ethnic quagmire was accompanied by a bureaucratic descent into ethnic quagmire and a descent in all spheres of human endeavor in Nigeria into ethnic quagmire.

What is the way forward?

Firstly, Nigeria is a complex country to manage. It is not a simple state. It is a state of nationalities, many nationalities. Some have suggested that we have about 360 nationalities. Others have suggested 450 nationalities——typical Nigerian hyperbole. Every village is now being called a nationality. Managing such a complex enterprise is going to call for compromises and an understanding that mistakes will be made and that when mistakes are made, they should be addressed. And it is important to begin from a historical perspective.

That Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state is a fact that cannot be denied. The following are the most populous and politically influential – Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo (Ibo) 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5%, Tiv 2.5% (Nigeria Fact Sheet, United States Embassy). It is counterproductive for anyone to deny his or her ethnic identity. But admitting one’s ethnic identity is one thing, while asserting that identity to the detriment of other ethnic identities is the problem. In other words, assertion of an ethnic identity is ethnicity and is acceptable. But a behaviour based on an assertion of one’s identity as if that is the only identity in a multi-ethnic state is ethnicism and unacceptable.


  • Prof. A. Bolaji Akinyemi, CFR, delivered this lecture at the Maiden Edition of Engr. (Rev) Et Ikpong Ikpong Etteh (OFR) Annual Distinguished Lecture held, at the Oriental Hotel, Lekki, Lagos, on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.