By Obadiah Mailafia
EVERY individual on earth has his own unique destiny. Happy is the young man or young woman who discovers their life-goals early enough. What is true of individuals is also true of nations. Every nation has a unique vocation. Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield always taught that there is such a thing as Fate in the historical drama of nation states.
The great philosopher of history Arnold J. Toynbee wrote about what he termed “creative civilisations”. These are the cultures that respond creatively to the challenges they face and marshal the capacity to prevail against all the odds placed on their path.
It was my great good fortune to have had part of my education in France. I spent a year learning French language and civilisation in the famous provincial town of Vichy in the central Auvergne region.
I later did post-graduate studies in economics and public administration in Paris. I had opportunity to drink deep from the fountain of French history, literature and philosophy. I was privileged to move in the highest echelons of the French intellectual and political elite. I can boldly say that few nations on earth have such a deep sense of national vocation and destiny as France does.
The French have always believed in their own unique exceptionalism within the European family of nations. They have always believed that they are the ultimate custodians of the universal values of civilisation.
France is a country largely based on merit. The great public schools such as École national d’administration (ENA), École polytechinque and École normale superièure, together with ancient universities such as the Sorbonne, have been the principal training grounds for the country’s leaders in politics, diplomacy, business, industry finance, education, philosophy, literature and the humanities.
The world’s greatest mathematicians and philosophers are French. The elite Académie française is one of the most unique institutions in the world. Its 40 members are always drawn from the greatest living Frenchmen and women in the sciences, letters and philosophy. Election is only when one member dies and his/her place needs to be filled. They are so revered that they are popularly known as “less immortels” (the immortals).
God speaks French, of course. The French believe that they are the birthplace of modern liberty, equality and fraternity – the natural habitat of the New Enlightenment. Among the nations of the West, only the French elite could treat the Abami Eda with such reverence, almost bordering on idolatry. Perhaps, only in France could you have a young president of 39 with a 65 year old wife who hero-worships Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his Kalakuta Republic.
France is also a land of contradictions, bien sûr. France’s self-definition as a great nation requires that it keeps control of its former African dependencies. France has never pretended that Africa is her equal partner. I am persuaded that African independence in our twenty-first century will have little or no meaning until the so-called Francophone countries resolve to cut off the umbilical cords of their pernicious servitude under a France-Afrique that has treated our glorious continent with such contumely. This is not to take anything away from France’s sense of her own rayonnement and grandeur.
As the Good Lord would have it, I went for my doctoral studies in England, precisely as Commonwealth Office Scholar at Oriel College, Oxford. I also taught in London up to Associate Professor Grade before moving into banking. I mention this not out of any undue hubris, but merely to prove to any doubting Thomases that I know, that I know, what I am talking about. I saw the best of Britain as well as its not-so-pretty face. Britain is, of course, an agglomeration of 4 distinct nations: the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish. Together, they make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The British, unlike the French, avoided a violent revolution by having a more reformist approach to parliamentary democracy. Magna Carta 1215 was a unique document that established by law the liberties of the English people and their right to be treated with fairness, justice and the rule of law. The British were the first nation on earth to be a world manufacturing power. They pride themselves over the fact that, in war and in peace, the British parliament has never stopped sitting for the past 600 years.
Britain defines herself as the Land of Hope and Glory. The country has produced such universal minds as Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare and John Locke, who have changed the way we view the world. And they had a political giant such as Winston Churchill the war-time Prime Minister who led the Allies in defending Europe against the dark knights of Nazism and fascism. Today, the Empire is gone. But the British, who recently voted to leave the European Union, are redefining themselves a middle power with a world vocation to be a moderating and civilising influence in international politics.
What does Nigeria stand for and what is our vocation and destiny among the nations of the earth?
During my final-year viva in Paris, one of the questions that I was asked was: “Is Nigeria a Country?” I was shocked, dumbfounded, and somewhat irritated all at the same time. Only in France could a student be asked such a question in a final vive voce. My first instinct was to be defensive and patriotic. But I realised the juridical and philosophical subtlety of the question itself. French public administration is deep and rigorous.
Any country that cannot exercise full control of its national territory while securing the common peace fails the French definition of a viable country. I shall spare my readers my responses to that final examination question which required disquisitions in fields as diverse of rural administration, public law, international law and macroeconomics.
The name Nigeria was first suggested by Flora Shaw, later to become Lady Lugard, in an essay that first appeared in The Times of London on 8 January 1897. Contrary to what many believe, Nigeria was not “accidental country”. In 1914, the British colonialists “amalgamated the North and the South mainly to save resources for the war effort. But the greatest of our historians from Yusuf Bala Usman, Ade Ajayi, Tekena Tamuno and Kenneth Dike would tell you, the process of state formation had been long in the making. We were being integrated as a country by the processes of war, diplomacy, commerce and cultural cross-fertilisation.
We are not yet a nation. But nations themselves are invented identities. Nation building is something that a new generation of leaders must take on as a bounden duty. We must make Nigeria work and we must re-engineer the federation to give all our composite nationalities a sense of belonging based on the requirements of order and justice.
Albert Einstein famously noted that God does not play dice with the universe. The Creator did not make a mistake to put us together in this temple as Muslims, Christians, Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and some 200 other nationalities. God is doing a thought experiment. He is building a community of diverse peoples who will hold aloft the banner of the New Africa. Nigeria remains not only the hope of Africa but also the hope of the black race. If Nigeria fails, Africa is doomed to return to being the playing field of empires as it has been for the better part of a millennium. Our leaders have never grasped the fact that ours is a high and noble destiny. We are the Standard Bearers of African Civilisation. Our vocation is to build a first-class industrial-technological democracy, with opportunities for our people; a country governed by responsible, enlightened leaders based on precepts of the rule of law, social justice and solidarity.