Building a Nation Without Nationalists?



While Nigeria marked the 57th Anniversary of her independence on Sunday one streak of the national mood was not explicit in the messages sent on the occasion. Here is the point: it is hardly fashionable anymore to wave the flag of Nigerian nationalism or defend the unity of the country as a matter of historical responsibility. The latest fad is that of championing ethnic, regional or religious interests at the huge expense of national integration and cohesion.

The tragedy of the moment is simply that it used not be like this; a generation of Nigerian youths once made Nigerian nationalism their career. For example, the young men in the Zikist Movement proudly and selflessly fought in the spirit of Nigerian nationalism; they did not champion northern or southern interests. No, a century of British colonialism did not come an end on October 1, 1960 without a fight.

To be sure, there were no guerrilla fighters who went to the bush; but there were radical youths agitating in the cities. As the late Marxist historian, Bala Usman, used to put in his inimitable polemical fashion, the struggle for independence was for the nationhood of Nigeria and not for ethnic or regional divisions. In fact, 70 years ago, some of the young men were so immersed in the liberation of Africa such that Nigerian independence was expected to be the launching pad for the total liberation of the black people. It was not for nothing that the appellation of the chief inspirer of the young nationalists, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was not “Zik of Onitsha” or even “Zik of Nigeria.”

He was hailed as “Zik of Africa”! Azikiwe later emerged the first President of Nigeria, albeit a ceremonial one. The first president of Ghana, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, remarked in his autobiography that Azikiwe inspired him. In the early 1960s, Nkrumah himself was championing the cause of African unity including the possibility of an all –African government. The dimension of the tragedy of our time could be gauged by the reality that decades after such a momentum the passion for Nigerian unity is dwindling. If Nigerian unity is no more an imperative, how would the forces for African integration be galvanised?
To the separatists and ethnic champions, Nigerian unity has become a naïve proposition.

And that is putting the matter in the mildest form. Yet the actual naivety is not responsibly contemplating the multi-dimensional consequences of the disintegration of Nigeria due to political recklessness. To the moderate ethnic and regional champions, the unity of Nigeria is solely hinged on “restructuring.” That is why some elements in this camp view any divergence from their own concept of “true federalism” as the view of “enemies of Nigeria.” The separatists are more combative in their approach. To defend Nigerian unity and integration is to defend “injustice and inequity;” it is to stand on the way of those who are imbued with fantasies of carving out Nigeria into ethnic enclaves.

The immense deficits in the historical process of nation- building have become manifest in the tone and tenor of the restructuring debate. To start with, many of the protagonists in the largely unstructured debate do not seem to appreciate the dynamics of the Nigerian political economy. The dominant tendencies in the debate do not adopt political economy approach which is a more rigorous and radical approach to the problem at hand. After all, the category National Question has a leftist origin. The binary approach of north versus south is more convenient and, therefore, more popular. It is the absence of the poltical economy approach that makes some of the leading voices in the debate not to empahasise the fact that those who are really marginalised are the wretched of the earth found among all ethnic groups, located in all regions and zones and who are adherents of all religions. It is the lack of the political economy approach that prevents the champions of “true federalism” not to see the anti-poverty importance of Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution regardless of whatever fault they may find with that constitution.

Sometimes, the debate assumes an ahistorical dimension. Listening to the regional advocates you would think that since Lord Lugard Nigeria has achieved zero integration. Ethnic irredentists even deny the sociological forces of cultural mix taking place especially in the urban areas. In the name of restructuring public intellectuals pontificate as if the history of Nigeria was frozen in 1914.

Another unjustifiable deficit in nation-building is that the voices that should be raised in defence of Nigerian unity are now very strident in articulating ethnic and regional positions. The cause of national unity is not helped when those who have had the privilege of superintending over Nigerian affairs in various departments of national life are simply transmuted into defenders of ethnic and regional interests in their retirement. Some of those who have experienced this political transfiguration are heads of arms of government, former service chiefs, generals, ministers, heads of security agencies, senior civil servants, heads of parastatals etc. They are unmindful of the signals they send to the succeeding generation.

Contrast this situation with the British experience in the debate preceding the vote on Scottish independence recently. Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown along with other former British ministers of Scottish origin rose spiritedly in the defence of the union. They didn’t wear Scottish nationalism as a badge of honour. There is a moral in this example.

Worse still, in Nigeria the political parties have simply lost their voices in the debate.
So how can a Nigerian nation be built without nationalists? Among the determinants of nation building the most crucial is the subjective consciousness of willing to belong to a nation. That is the feeling of nationalism. It is the historical duty of nationalists to inspire the people to embrace nationalism. At this historical conjecture, President Muhammadu Buhari should assume the role of the Nationalist-in-Chief both in words and action. Even his body language should exude nationalism. His appointments should demonstrate nationalism. His speeches should be imbued with nationalism. For instance, his October 1 speech did not pass the test of the nationalism expected of him at this period of Nigerian history.. The President rightly rebuked the Igbo political elite for not calling the Biafran separatists to order early enough. However, Buhari should have demonstrated a greater outrage at the recklessness of the Arewa youths issuing quit notice to fellow citizens resident in the north. In fact, by not applying the law in dealing with the delinquent Arewa youths, the Nigerian state has done a terrible disservice to the cause of nation- building. That is not the way of nationalism.

BACK PAGE ​​​By Babafemi Ojudu

Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves

One of the things I love doing is driving through the streets and towns of Ekiti State. It was a dream when I was a boy with no hope of ever getting behind the wheels of a car. It’s a hobby now that I am an adult.
I love to drive as the soft morning breeze wafts through the air. Ekiti is a small state blessed with green vegetation. The morning air is pure and does wonders to the soul. Our elders used to say if you listen well, you could hear the voice of the angels whistling through the winds.

You can drive the length and breadth of my beloved State in an hour. If you’re an indigene of Ekiti or a resident of the state or someone who has had the good fortune of visiting with us, you will know what I mean. You think better driving the length and breath of the state as the sun rises over those glorious hills and mountains. Our towns have different names, from Omuo to Efon, from Emure to Iye but we are one.

I enjoy the easy banter with folks in the towns and villages. Our people are welcoming and prosperous. All they need is a chance, an opportunity. It takes me back to a time not too long ago, a time when boys could dream of bright futures and girls shaped their destinies.

I am a poster child for what is possible in Ekiti. I was born with little. Try hard as my parents did, we couldn’t afford much. But, we had something money couldn’t buy. We had hope. And, it wasn’t just me. It was most of the kids I know on the streets and in school. We knew if we kept good grades, we will keep moving forward.

But, those days are long gone. These days, driving through the streets is not the joy it once was. You have to cut through the cloud of gloom and doom that hangs over the state. Then you have to deal with the hopelessness etched across the faces of the children, youth and elders.

The future of any society lies in its children and youth. Sometimes I wonder what sort of future are we leaving to them. Our fathers laid a great foundation for us to build a better future. That future is today. But, has our leadership in Ekiti laid a good foundation for the children and youth of today?

​I talk to a lot of the youth. A lot of times they seek me out – all over Ekiti and outside the state. I get tons of emails from many outside the country. Sometimes I seek them out. And they all have two questions – how did we get here? How do we get away from here?

How do you sow hope in the midst of crushing bleakness? How do you tell a child to hold on a while longer and that better days are coming? How do you convince the youth that there’s something at the end of the dark tunnel and it’s not the brainless insanity of the last few years?
It’s tough to preach hope when the emperor who specializes in doom snatches opportunities provided to the youth and children and dump them in his basket of failures. Take the case of the Home Grown School Feeding Program of the federal government for example. This was a no-brainer. The federal government had designed the programme to encourage kids to go to school by providing them a free meal, nourish them and improve their performance. It was designed to increase school enrollment and encourage local farmers to go back to farm and increase food production.

Our kids in Ekiti were denied that opportunity until I started screaming for all to hear. I had to challenge the Governor in the presence of the Vice President about it for reason to sink into him. And, it’s not just our children that were losing out. The entire state was. We have lost dozens of months where our farmers could have earned income providing the food for the children, our caterer could have been employed cooking the food and the lives of the people would have been tremendously better.

I often wondered what would have happened if I was born into this age of gloom, when the only thing that seems waiting at the end of the tunnel is doom. These kids know leaders who are everything but leaders. I knew leaders who were men and women of honor. Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Pa Adekunle Ajasin. Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Professors Banji Akintoye and Sam Aluko. Ewi Aladesanmi Anirare. Lady Deborah Jibowu.

These kids these days have not been that lucky, especially in the last few years. So, when some kids came to me the other day lamenting our great State and the future, how they love the State but don’t like the way it’s been dragged through the mud, how they’re tired of being the laughing stock of the nation, my heart bled for the State. But, that wasn’t all of it. One of the kids asked me, what would I tell the children of Ekiti. How can I convince the youth that tomorrow will be better? It was a question that gnawed at my soul. These are kids who just want their state and their leadership to do right by them. They don’t want too much. They just want to be able to live in a land of opportunity because they know when there is hope, with their sweat and determination they will create plenty.

I told them what my father once told me. That when all the chips are down, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and go to work. I am rolling up my sleeves and getting ready to go to work. With our sweat and determination we will make Ekiti great again. I told them to spread the news – tell every kid in Ekiti it is time to roll up their sleeves and sing songs of freedom. Hope is coming to Ekiti.

•Senator Ojudu is a Special Adviser to the President on Political Matters.