By Professors Akin Oyebode
The Creation of Nigeria
It is common knowledge that, Nigeria came into being in the throes of intra-imperialist wranglings of the 19th century. More significantly, the creators of Nigeria, the British colonisers, did not bother to poll the inhabitants of their new territory, whether or not they were in agreement with the decision to lump them together under the British Crown. Not surprisingly, the conquistadores paid little heed to the feelings and, or interests of those they believed were children of lesser gods, and effected the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in furtherance of the interests of the British Empire.
To that extent, therefore, there was little or no consideration for the natives’ right to self-determination, as was later propounded by Lenin in 1917, in the unholy quest by imperialism to seize other peoples’ land and natural resources. The nearly 300 years of the trans Atlantic trade in black skins, had guaranteed that the African people had no rights that European marauders needed to respect or bother about. It was, after all, the age of imperialism.
However, things took a somewhat radical turn, when the former brutalised and colonised, came into themselves and fought and won or cajoled their oppressors, into considering granting them their political independence. Paradoxically, independence landed Africans on the horns of a dilemma: revert the continent to the pre-colonial empires and kingdoms, or commence the arduous task of “nation-building” by maintaining and strengthening the embryonic states created by the erstwhile colonial powers. The OAU Cairo Declaration of 1964 on the sanctity of Africa’s colonial boundaries, the so-called uti possidetis, ita possideatis formula, helped extricate the newly independent African States from a most difficult situation.
Post-Colonial Nigeria and the Country’s Fault Lines
The removal of the colonial scaffolding, merely accentuated the cleavages within the Nigerian polity, such that conflicting world-views and lack of cohesion among the country’s ruling class, degenerated into an insatiable struggle for economic and political power among various factions and fractions of the power elite, almost to the level of a cut- throat competition, which gave the militariat the opportunity to push the squabbling politicians into the river and run away with their clothes.
Regrettably, the men in khaki did not fare any better, as they used bullets instead of the ballot to settle scores among themselves, with the result that Nigeria became engulfed in a 30 month-long internecine war that cost the country millions of lives and colossal damage to infrastructure. Interestingly, even some of the ‘militicians’ apprehended the wrongs their dictatorial rule had wrought on the country, and made attempts to douse the people’s disillusionment, by setting up talk shops in an effort to craft new modalities for the country’s future. However, the more discerning members of the civil society saw through their infantile efforts at political and socio-economic engineering, and commenced the struggle to liberate the country from the stranglehold of the military dictators.
Attempts to foist artificial political norms and practices on the country, soon proved to be a prescription worse than the disease they were supposed to cure, leaving the country more divided than hitherto as leaders of the different ethnic groups and nationalities, engaged in bickering and brickbats that threatened to bring the the roof down on the country. It is against this background that the various efforts to forge a national consensus during the military interregnum should be appraised.
Impact of the Various National Conferences on the Polity
While both factions of the ruling class—agbada and khaki—might be considered as being imbued with patriotism and good intentions by convening national confabulations, from Murtala Muhammed’s Committee of 50 Wisemen to the Abacha and Obasanjo’s Conferences, it needs be remembered that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The military mindset is dead against the right of the people to go to heaven the way they want and, therefore, as frequently observed by the hero of Nigeria’s democracy, M.K.O. Abiola, attempting to shave people’s heads in their absence, is indeed, a chimera.
However, it would seem that Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s endeavour of 2014 seems to stand by itself, considering especially the broad spectrum of forces represented in the assembly, notwithstanding the hidden agenda by its convener.
The arrival of decisions by consensus, and hammering of compromises by a select conclave of elders, meant that controversial issues like true federalism, resource control, fiscal federalism, restructuring, devolution, state police, regionalism and so on, were generally agreed on, with different groups having something to chew instead of giving any one group the whole loaf. By trying to iron out the rough edges of the Nigerian polity and hoisting the flag of unity in diversity and mutual respect, it portended a great day in the future for the multiethnic, multi- religious, and multicultural entity known as Nigeria.
If most of the recommendations of the Confab had been accepted and acted upon, it is not likely that we would today, be seeing rebellious, fissiparous attitudes and tendencies among many in the land, most of whom were either not born or too young to recall the horrors and travails of war. In the event, all manner of ill-informed rabble-rousers and crusaders for secession and self-determination have seized the political space, proffering simplistic, ill-digested solutions to the multifarious problems afflicting the country. Evidently, they are unaware of the fact that in international law, self-determination is applicable only to colonial situations, except there was a post-independence scenario of domestic colonialism. Separation and creation of a new State are a possibility, only if the canvassers are able to alter the facts on the ground militarily. This much can be gleaned from the experiences of Bangladesh, Eritrea, East Timor and South Sudan, where military success on the battle-field became the harbinger of new subjects of international law. Where the endeavour fails as in Katanga and Biafra, nothing would really change.
Quo Vadis, Nigeria?
Perhaps, it needs be stated immediately, that even with the best intention in the world, nation-building is never a finished task, but always a work in progress. Even the most advanced societies of our time, are still embroiled in the task of creating a better assemblage of their people. However, we need not continue repeating the shibboleth that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable. As Mark Twain once opined, only two things are non-negotiable in life—death and taxes! What is sorely needed at the present point in time, is a more imaginative resolve to confront the difficulties we face as a diverse and heterogenous people.
Mercifully, there is today, a groundswell of consensus, on the need for restructuring and recalibration of the basis of our living together. The forces mobilising for a restructuring or reconfiguration of our modalities for co-habitation cut across the entire country, faiths and attitudes. The necessity to renegotiate our paradigm for co-existence is paramount, in view of the fact that in unity lies the country’s strength. While those who believe that there should be greater inclusiveness and equity in determining who gets what, when and how should have the right to ventilate their grievance, there should be a sense of compassion and social solidarity among everyone, as well as the imperative of a give and take mentality, in order to make each and every Nigerian a stakeholder in the Nigeria project. There should no longer be room for an attitude of “My Mercedes is bigger than yours” in the scheme of things. No longer should we tolerate the feeling that some are born to rule, and others destined only to serve. Burden and benefit should run together, in the new Nigeria. Alienation, exclusion or marginalisation, should no longer be part of our political lexicon in a meritocratic Nigerian society.
In the final analysis, I believe reason will prevail, even among those enamoured of brinkmanship and a winner-takes-all mentality. As soon as the crusaders gape at the ravine, they would immediately appreciate the necessity to step back and seek the accommodation of their fellow citizens. Nigerians, Africans and the entire Black race, just cannot afford the disintegration of their biggest hope for restoring the dignity of man in this environment. Of course, the modalities for reshaping the country’s socio-economic and political architecture would need to be hammered out but then, that would be a matter of mere details. As stated by Victor Hugo, there is no force in the world that can stop an idea whose time has come. So let it be, with the necessity for Nigeria’s restructuring.
Professor Akin Oyebode, Professor of International Law, University of Lagos