2019 general elections and the question of national unity


By Aare Afe Babalola

Preparation has begun in earnest for the 2019 general elections. Politicians characteristically have begun to break and form alliances in a bid to secure victory at the polls. Many who before now were sworn enemies have suddenly realised the need for dialogue bringing to fore the unspoken code that in politics, there is no permanent friend or enemy. However as is again usual with them, they seem to have forgotten to write into their equation of political alignment and realignments the very thing that should be uppermost in the minds of any political leader truly desirous of serving his people; the unity and interest of the nation and the people they seek to serve. This is why I consider it imperative to remind our leaders that as we prepare for the next elections, adequate attention must be given to certain issues that continue to affect the political, economic and social fortunes this country, the paramount of which should be the all important question of national unity.

Result of past elections show a ‘Nation’ divided along ethnic and tribal lines

If anything, the result of the 2015 Presidential elections shows that Nigeria is yet to metamorphose into a nation. It still remains a country of one huge nation and two smaller nations. The voting patterns indicate that Nigerians still choose their national leaders acting largely on ethnic and tribal sentiments. It is a sad commentary on our development as a nation that in electing leaders much more attention is paid to issues of ethnic identity rather than political ideology and party manifestoes.

Anyone in doubt should simply put up chart of the states of the federation showing where the candidates of the two main political parties fared the best or had impressive showings. Whilst President Muhammad Buhari had almost the entirety of the votes in the northern parts of the country, the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan recorded a similar feat in the South-South and the South-East. While Buhari scored 1.9 Million and 1.3 Million votes in Kano and Katsina States respectively, Jonathan scored 1.4 and 1.1 million votes in Rivers and Delta States respectively. Many have been quick to attribute this to what is known in Nigerian Politics as the “home boy” factor which means nothing other than the fact that a candidate at an election is or will be assured of support of those with whom he shares an ethnic or tribal affinity. I do not believe in this so called “home boy” factor, at least not in the way it is used in Nigeria in which it is in a reality a euphemism for tribal, ethnic and religious sentiments. In my estimation it represents all that is wrong with our aspirations to live as a nation.

How did we get here?

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. 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 colorationof old and inspired only by nationalistic considerations. Well, three military coups later and afteryears 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!

Post Independence  Constitution making process recognised diversity

Yet things really should not have been permitted to get this bad. Indeed as I have always argued, diversity should not be a bar to true nationhood but on the contrary if properly harnessed, should even serve as a means towards achieving true nationhood. The founding fathers of the country recognised this fact. In the process leading up to the promulgation of the independence constitution, the fore fathers of the Nigerian nation deliberated extensively in Lancaster house London on several matters which were imperative for the take-off and the development of the new nation. Many of the issues discussed 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.

Nigeria is not alone in Area of Ethnic diversity

Before attempting an analysis of the myriad of solutions proffered as a way out it is pertinent to note that Nigeria is not alone in the area of ethnic diversity. 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 titled “The state of Africa” Martin Meredith stated as follows about the birth of most African countries:

“The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognita. When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, Europeans negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground. Nearly one half of the new frontiers imposed on Africa were geometric lines, lines of latitude and longitude, other straight lines or arcs of circles. In some cases, African societies were rent apart: the Bakongo were partitioned between French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola; Somaliland was carved up between Britain, Italy and France.

In all, the new boundaries cut through some 190 culture groups. In other cases, Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language or religion. Nigeria, for example, contained as many as 250 ethno-linguistic groups… Kingdoms that had been historically antagonistic to one another, such as Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda, were linked into the same colony. In the Sahel, new territories were established across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the best of tropical forests to the south – Sudan, Chad and Nigeria – throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility.

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.”

To be continued.


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