The National Question and Its Perversion


The Horizon  Kayode Komolafe 0805 500 1974

The political landscape is in a ferment being fuelled by disparate forces with action and inaction. And the political fuel comes from different directions and in some cases unwittingly.
For example, inaction becomes a fuel for the groundswell of agitation when the police fail to arrest those who flagrantly violated the law by issuing a quit notice to some citizens. The Inspector-General of Police does not need to be told to do its duty. By the inaction of the police, a national organisation in charge of security, the problem is further deepened.

The irresponsible statement of some disoriented elements masquerading as “youths” is a categorical threat to national security and it has put the integrity of the federation into question. If you could put Nnamdi Kanu on trial for his Biafra fantasy, you have double reasons to charge to court those threatening the rights of citizens in a part of the country. Failure to do this unwittingly reinforces the arguments of those who say irrationally that national unity is not desirable. In this case, the problem is with the officialdom.
However, a greater problem resides in the impulses located in the various ethnic and regional political quarters and more menacingly on the streets.

As a result, the legitimate National Question which is as old as Nigeria itself has been perverted. Perhaps one good thing that could come out of the current heat in the polity is that it could serve as an opportunity to structure the age-long debate by posing the National Question more constructively. For instance, there is a deep conceptual confusion about what exactly restructuring entails in the circumstance. Restructuring means different things to different proponents.

By the way, the National Question is a specific question arising from the relationship among different nationalities, regions and various identities. It is, in fact, a leftist category meant to acknowledge the fact that just as there are class contradictions there are also nationality and regional issues. The point being stressed here is that resolving the National Question does not automatically solve all “national problems” as some commentators tend to put their arguments. In the most charitable terms, the current vehemence in posing the question is to the effect that the Nigerian federalism should be made workable.

In a way, the National Question was the pre-occupation of the various constitutional conferences that preceded the declaration of independence on October 1, 1960. The question was the substance of the debates among the Nnamdi Azikiwes, Ahamadu Bellos and Obafemi Awolowos as the foundation of the federation was being laid. It was the basis of the Henry Willinks Commission set up by the colonial government to protect the interests of the minority ethnic groups. The National Question has been a constant and vital question for the polity. That is to be expected because contrary to what the proponents of the myth of “true federalism’’ say, federalism is indeed a matter of continuous negotiation between the centre and the federating units. Every federal nation will have to evolve its own peculiar federalism.

At various stages, the National Question has been posed differently with attempts to answer it; sometimes the answer was by bloodlessly tinkering with the structure (state creation) and at other times, and on a sad note, by bloody engagements as in the case of the 30-month civil war. So let no one assume that he has just invented the National Question in Nigeria. That is why the currently rising political temperature should generate some light at the end of the day. This is more so as important interventions could be deciphered amidst the shouting march on the Internet and even on the streets.

For instance, the tinge of irony in the intervention of former President Ibrahim Babangida should not be lost on the rest of us. In August 1990, there was a gallant attempt to frame the National Question in the spirit of the moment. The late radical lawyer Alao Aka-Bashorun, eminent technocrat Phillip Asiodu, the late nationalist Tayo Akpata and others conceived of a National Conference to be held at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. The military government of Babangida, of course, frowned at the idea. When Aka-Bashorun and compatriots insisted on staging the conference, the government forcefully stopped it. The context is also important. The conference was proposed four months after an aborted coup against Babangida was announced by Major Gideon Orka. It was a bloody affair. The leaders of the coup (mainly elements from the minority ethnic groups of the South and the middle Belt) actually declared that some states in the north had been “excised” from the country in a speech laden with hate.

So the virus of hate speech has been in the political blood of the Nigerian nation for long. However, 27 years after and with the benefit of hindsight, the same Babangida is now on the side of the proponents of restructuring of the federation. And his points are indubitably constructive. He has questioned the overload of the exclusive legislative list with items that states could now handle more efficiently. For example, he has wondered why there should be federal roads within the boundaries of a state. If you have course to experience the anguish caused the users of the federal roads in Apapa, Lagos, you would not doubt Babangida’s position. There should more voices of reason to dampen the tension in the land.

The danger in the manner of posing the National Question this time round is that the voices of the separatists, irredentists and ethnic champions are becoming more strident. The pitch in the voice of the forces of division seems to be rising higher than that of the voice of unity and national integration. In the world of the separatists in the north, east and west, restructuring is interchangeably used with the split of Nigeria without weighing the repercussions of their irrational proposition. The separatists deny the reality of some integrative forces on ground. Hence, the polity has become a huge incubation for demagogues, budding fascists, bigots, merchants of hate and opportunists invoking the name of the people in vain to serve personal agendas. Their proposition lacks vision; their mission can only lead to bloodletting. And make no mistake about it; these forces of disintegration are located in every zone of the country. It is, therefore, risky at this stage to dismiss them as mere irritants. They should be confronted decisively with superior logic and positive action.

Should we blame the growing army of demagogues in all parts of Nigeria alone for this sorry state of affairs? No. They are the products of monumental failure of governance and lack of ideological politics. In a regime of poverty of ideas, hate speech becomes a ready improvisation to play politics. If the elements of the ruling class have no articulated strategy of development to tackle poverty ravaging the land, ethnic bigots are prepared to employ manipulation of religion and ethnicity to mobilise the poor and unemployed youths. If political parties would not lead national debates on socio-economic policies, ethnic associations and religious merchants are bracing up to fill the vacuum with their own ideas and doctrines of vertical division of the poor people.

Imagine if all the energy invested in the current heated debate is put on the disaster that is happening to public education! The collapse of public education affects the poor horizontally and it is more important than the fact that some members of the elite are not offered federal appointments. The proponents of political restructuring are carrying on as if the problem of socio-economic structure of poverty and misery is not the primary problem of Nigeria. The illusion is being nurtured that once you achieve “true federalism” poverty would be “restructured” out of this society. Meanwhile, those who once had the privilege of holding crucial national positions in which they affected the fate of this country are not embarrassed to be known as ethnic and regional champions years later.

How do you build a nation without nationalists in leadership positions? The perversion of the National Question is the tragic consequence of the worsening political underdevelopment of Nigeria.
Again, to borrow the famous Lenin’s phrase, what is to be done? The federal government should act smartly and take the wind out of the sails of the forces of disunity. Come to think of it, the All Progressives Congress (APC) controlling the centre now promised restructuring in its manifesto. The other day the “southern leaders” met in Lagos and asked the federal government to take steps to restructure the country before October 1. The tactless ultimatum in that declaration made by these eminent Nigerians should be ignored.

However, the federal government should consider the substance of their position by sending the report of the National Conference organised by former President Goodluck Jonathan to the National Assembly with its own position. It doesn’t matter that Jonathan himself kept the report for months without any action on it before leaving power in 2015. The National Assembly would at least provide a fairly representative platform for a structured and meaningful debate of the derivative issues in the National Question.
It is time the perversion of the National Question was checked to save Nigeria’s unity.