By Rotimi Fasan
AS Nigeria marks its 57th year as a corporate entity, there is no greater issue that has got the people of this country exercised than that of her unity. In clear language, Nigerians from different parts of the country are very much concerned about the terms by which they must relate with one another.
The polarising nature of this issue has left many including Nigerians themselves wondering if the country can very much survive for long as a united country. But there is no reason why the country should break up on account of disagreement over how it is to be governed.
The truth is that the question of Nigeria’s unity is not a new one. It’s as old as the country itself and the founders of this country knew this. Leaders of the diverse nationalities that make up the country took it as a matter of course.
They were not shy about talking even when they did so from the point of view of the interest of the people they represented. And it is only natural that such questions that involve debate over the sharing of scarce resources is first pursued from the angle of self-interest which does not, therefore, imply a complete disregard or unfair consideration of the interests of others. Rather, what such a debate demands is a fair and just consideration of what is good for all. That too is self-interest- not to ignore the interest of others.
The alternative will be trouble and chaos as nobody would stand for their interest being ignored. It is therefore nothing to be worried about that Nigerians are not on the same page on the issue of how the country is to be governed, which translates into how scarce resources are to be shared. For at the very bottom of it, the question of Nigeria’s unity at this moment speaks to the issue of the distribution of scarce resources.
It is thus a non-starter for anyone, including leaders of the present administration as were others in previous governments, to suggest that discussions of this kind are no-go areas. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Nigeria is supposedly a federal entity, an amalgam of disparate ethnic, social and political formations that have chosen to come together under one government in a boundaried space. The very idea of federalism implies agreement and agreements are only arrived at on the basis of discussion, negotiation or whatever else we choose to call that process that leads to the formation of political entities.
Nigerian federalism has elements of such debate or negotiation. It was negotiation that led to Nigeria gaining independence from the British on 1 October, 1960. Otherwise, Nigeria could have been independent four years earlier than it did. But leaders of the north objected to that, leading to the choice of 1960.
A lot of negotiations went into the creation of the regional governments that took charge after independence. The various constitutional conferences and developments that preceded formal independence from foreign rule which formed the basis of self-government (attained at different dates in each of the regions) were results of negotiations even when the British did not appear opposed to some form of partisanship in their dealings with the different regions or in the manner it created the Nigerian state. The important thing is that there were negotiations. Nothing says negotiation has to be a one-off thing. It has to be ongoing, informed and guided by new realities and developments.
We really need to remind ourselves of these basic and no doubt elementary facts of our historical foundation as a federal entity at this time that many of us, especially leaders of the country, appear carried away by their own rhetoric on the non-negotiable nature of Nigeria’s unity. As a federation of sorts, Nigerians are in a form of political marriage. While some marriages are the outcome of imposition, marriages that have lasted and stood the test of time are based on negotiation. The kind of imposed rapine that has tended to characterise relationship among the leaders of this country and the people was enabled by a lack of clear terms of engagement between the leaders and the led. This cannot and should not continue any longer.
It is true that the inflammatory rhetoric and excesses of groups such as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB, may have caused serious anxiety about the true intent of such groups with regards to the continued existence of Nigeria.
Activities of such groups could predispose people in positions of authority to suspect the motives of self-determination organisations and others with sympathies for them, but there is no reason why decisions hastily made to respond to the divisive antics of loony elements should be the basis of fundamental principles of engagement between the Nigerian state and genuine people.
Nor should such activities be the excuse for outlawing free speech and discussion at the macro level of ethnic nationalities.
Nigeria’s unity is negotiable and that is one task that cannot wait for long if the health of the country is of any concern to us. Those opposed to any discussion of the manner Nigeria is being managed are unnecessarily selfish and afraid of the unknown. They are living in denial of what is required at this moment.
What really is in a name or a word that we should end up wasting time over a non-issue? Splitting hair about the meaning of words (restructuring, federalism, fiscal federalism, devolution of power, etc) would take us nowhere. We all know what is at stake and the task before us. We know the injustice that has led us all to this point. Called by whatever name, Nigeria has to be remade in the name and interest of Nigerians. The fraud in its preamble that ascribes a military-engineered constitution to the people will always remain what it is- a fraud. But we know what has to be done.
Nigerians have to come together to discuss the overall management of the country. They must tread the path of wisdom and do what can no longer be denied. It was the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello who famously insisted on us understanding our differences rather than forgetting them as the Great Zik of Africa, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had urged.
It may be a matter of irony that the descendants of Sir Bello are the least enthusiastic about discussing Nigeria today. A situation where a few people sit back in Abuja frittering away our resources in the guise of governing is simply unacceptable. Nigeria need not break up nor should it. We stand to gain more from staying together in mutual respect and support than standing apart. But we must negotiate the terms of that relationship.