September 2, 2021

Can Nigeria change from a mere geographical space to a nation?

Bola Tinubu

By Olu Fasan

WHEN Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote in Path to Nigerian Freedom, published in 1947, that Nigeria “is a mere geographical expression”, those who chose to misunderstand the context in which he used the phrase called him all sorts of names. Yet, Chief Awolowo merely stated the obvious: Nigeria was not a nation. Recently, General Ibrahim Babangida used the same phrase to describe Nigeria immediately after independence.

In his recent interview with Arise TV, General Babangida was asked why there were instabilities, leading to riots, two coup d’etats and a civil war, just within seven years of Nigeria’s independence. He replied: “We were struggling to be a nation. We hadn’t fully become a nation; we were just a group of people in a geographical environment called Nigeria”. So, Babangida agreed with Awolowo: Nigeria was a mere geographical space!

But here’s the question: Sixty years after independence, has Nigeria stopped being a mere geographical space? Is it now a nation? The answer is absolutely NO! Nigeria is still struggling to become a nation! Of course, Nigeria is a “state”. It has the essential elements of statehood: population, territory, government and sovereignty.

But it’s a fragile state because it lacks the capacity for essential functions and, given the widespread security threats from organised non-state violence, also lacks a monopoly on the use of organised violence – a basic feature of legitimacy. Nevertheless, Nigeria is a state. But a “state” is not necessarily a “nation”, which requires national unity, internal cohesion, and a sense of shared purpose.

Yet, nationhood matters because it’s impossible to have an effective state without a nation. As Professors Paul Collier and Tim Besley, co-authors of the LSE-Oxford University report on state fragility, put it: “State building requires nation building, and nation building requires actions by the state”. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, the state is not building a nation, and the absence of a nation makes the state utterly ineffective. No country can have political stability, national security and economic progress with deep divisions in the society, high religious or ethnic polarisation and entrenched oppositional identities.

Sadly, that’s the state of affairs in Nigeria. What Chief Awolowo said in his book in 1947 and the picture of the 1960s that General Babangida painted in his recent interview are still largely true today. Of course, since the 1960s, there have been lots of intermarriages, and social and commercial interactions, between Nigerians from different ethnic groups.

But it’s absurd to think that these individual actions alone can forge Nigeria into a nation. This is because nation building requires a collective sense of belonging, a collective sense of fairness and justice. It’s about how power is shared and exercised, how resources are distributed; it’s about equity and a lack of material discrimination!

Think about it. If an Igbo man marries a Fulani woman or does business with a Yoruba man, does that individual action matter if, collectively, the Igbo are made to feel like second-class citizens who can’t provide national leadership? Does individual social intercourse matter if Middle-Belt people face genocidal attacks from Fulani herdsmen while the state sides with the herders? Or does cross-ethnic commercial interactions matter if the Yoruba can’t develop their region at their own pace and feel under siege from AK-47-wielding Fulani herdsmen, while their children who peacefully agitate for self-determination in protest against the herdsmen’s savagery are brutalised and hounded by the state?

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Truth is, while individual actions are important, nation-building requires inclusive state actions. Again, to quote Professors Collier and Besley: “Shared identity across something as large as a country can only be built by the state, and in doing so, the state strengthens its own capacity to achieve other national goals”. But in Nigeria,the state is utterly unwilling to forge a nation out of a deeply polarised country.

Of course, this wasn’t going to be easy. The British cobbled Nigeria together from centuries-old independent and proud nations. Yet, instead of building a sense of shared national identity, they sowed seeds of disunity by fostering distrust between the North and the South and favouring the former over the latter.

During the debate on the ‘Nigeria Independence Bill’ in the House of Commons in July 1960, it was clear that the British didn’t like Chief Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who doggedly fought for Nigeria’s independence.

One MP, Arthur Creech Jones, said of Dr Azikiwe: “Perhaps in the earlier days he was a little irresponsible in his manner”, an understated way of saying he was a troublemaker. The British clearly wanted the North, their long-standing ally, to take control of Nigeria after independence.

Notwithstanding, at independence, Nigeria should have had an all-inclusive government of national unity, as South Africa had under Mandela, to build a shared identity around common purpose and set Nigeria on a strong nation-building trajectory. Instead, it was a winner-take-all, sectional politics. Even worse, the Tafawa Balewa-led, Northern-dominated, Federal Government wanted to divide and conquer Western Nigeria. It fuelled the crisis that led to Operation Wetie, Awolowo’s jailing, the coup and counter-coup and, ultimately, the civil war!

Sixty years after independence, little has changed. Nigeria is still, largely, a mere geographical expression. And President Muhammadu Buhari is doing little to forge it into a nation. Indeed, recently, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar accused him of “destroying the fabrics of Nigeria’s unity in 60 years”. One can hardly disagree!

Think about Buhari’s centralist plan to force grazing reserves on communities across the South and the Middle Belt. Think about his hasty signing of the Petroleum Industry Bill into law against strong opposition from the South. The presidency said he “bowed to majority wish”. Would he have rushed to sign the bill, even in self-isolation, if the North had strongly rejected it? Of course, he would have demurred!

Truth is, President Buhari cares very little about Nigeria’s diversity, about nation-building. Yet, if Nigeria must become a nation, the actions of the state and its leaders matter!

Vanguard News Nigeria