By Olu Fasan
NIGERIA is not a ‘nation’. At best, it is a union of nations or a ‘state’ of nations. It has the elements of statehood, but not of nationhood. A state is a political construct, with sovereignty and power of coercion; but a nation is a body of people with common descent, language and culture.
While a state can be multinational, consisting of culturally different or heterogeneous entities, a nation is defined by its cultural similarity or homogeneity. Crucially, a nation is an affair of the heart; but a state, unless it forges a shared identity, can be no more than a geographical expression!
That distinction between a state and a nation is central to understanding the acute lack of unity and cohesion in Nigeria. Truth is, instead of a shared identity, Nigeria has oppositional identities. Ethnic nationalism runs very deep in this country. The recent controversy about the name ‘Yoruba’ and the umbrage that some took that it originated from the Fulani shows how deep inter-ethnic sensitivity and animus are in Nigeria. The existence of several ethnic organisations and militant groups, each purportedly defending their ethnic interests is further evidence that Nigeria is not a nation but a mere state.
But Nigeria is not as unique as a multinational state. Britain, which created this country, is a union of nations. Indeed, UK prime ministers frequently talk of “the nations of this country”, referring to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet, despite being forged together as a union well over 300 years ago, since 1707, Britain’s shared identity is still weaker than the underlying identities. The fact that there is no British national football club, but English, Scottish and Welsh, says a lot, doesn’t it? What’s more, if you qualify as a lawyer or a medical doctor in England, you will have to re-qualify in Scotland to practise there. The education, legal and social systems in both nations are starkly different!
My point is that even in Britain, which cobbled together the political entity called Nigeria, the people’s core identities, forged long before the country came together over 300 years ago, still remain very strong and are given explicit recognition through unique political and constitutional settlements to strengthen the union. But in Nigeria, there is a blatant failure, indeed refusal, to recognise the challenge posed by its oppositional identities, let alone devise political and constitutional arrangements to deal with them. Yet, the zero-sum game in which one ethnic group sees another’s gain as its loss undermines national unity, cohesion and progress.
But at the heart of Nigeria’s problem is the big mismatch between power and identity. Power is concentrated at the centre, while identities are based at the sub-national levels. But such a mismatch between power and identity always brings huge problems. First is an unhealthy inter-ethnic struggle for domination at the centre; second is the inability of the state to turn power into authority; that is, the state can’t secure voluntary compliance, and will often repress people to force compliance.
The use of military force, such as the so-called Operation Python Dance, to repress militant agitations in Nigeria is strong evidence of such inability to turn power into authority. And, of course, it goes without saying that the lack of national unity, cohesion and a common purpose has greatly undermined social productivity and progress in Nigeria.
But what’s the way forward? Well, sociologists say there are two ways of addressing the mismatch between power and identity. The first is to move the structure of identities towards the structure of power; that is, by building a shared identity. The second is to move power down towards identity, essentially, to decentralise power. Both routes have been followed successfully in many countries, but the second suits Nigeria better. Here’s why.
Let’s start with the first. When Julius Nyerere became the founding president of Tanzania, he reportedly said: “I don’t have a country; what the colonialists have left me is 50 tribes with a border around”. He changed this through narratives and policies designed to build a shared identity. Among other things, he introduced a common language, not English, but Swahili; ensured a common narrative history was taught in schools; and decreed that no civil servant worked in his or her tribal area. Well, today, tribal schism hardly exists in Tanzania!
But, granted that Nigeria’s founding fathers played the ethnic card and built oppositional identities rather than a shared identity, the truth is that Nigeria is not Tanzania. It’s worth noting that virtually all the countries where a common identity has been forged from multiple identities were tiny states, with one dominant founding father, who was authoritarian. For instance, Tanzania and Singapore were tiny countries, and each had a dominant founding father, Nyerere and Lee Kuan Yew, respectively, who operated a ruthless one-party system. Nigerians, certainly, couldn’t have stomached the authoritarianism that allowed the great nation-building feats in those countries.
So, not every society can build a shared identity by moving the structure of identities towards the structure of power. Which then brings us to the second route: moving power towards identity, technically known as devolution or decentralisation of powers. Now, this is the route that has been followed by several multinational states. Switzerland, Belgium and Canada are some of the developed countries that have chosen this route; and several Commonwealth countries have done so, too. They have adopted radical devolution, with a significant autonomy given to regional governments.
Nigeria must learn from others how they’ve strengthened their union. Truth is, while it must try to build a shared identity, only radical decentralisation can secure long-term peace and progress for this country. Unless Nigeria restructures its polity and moves power down towards identity, it faces deepening schisms. It must follow the radical devolution route!