Nigeria: Redefining Nationhood

Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu


By Ambassador Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu

I consider it a singular honour to have been invited to deliver the 14th edition of the Annual Adekunle Kukọyi Memorial Lecture Series, an event that is held every year to mark the birth anniversary of a man rightly described as ‘a principled man of great integrity and commitment’. He, no doubt, distinguished himself as a member and leader within the surveying profession, both in the public and private sectors.

I only had the opportunity to meet him once or twice, in the course of searching for authentic information about some real estate in Lagos. He had, by then, earned for himself the reputation of being something of an oracle on such matters. I came away from each encounter with the distinct impression of having been in the presence of greatness. There was always something so dignified and assured about his mien and carriage that imparted confidence into whatever information he conveyed. May his great soul continue to rest in peace.

In accepting to deliver this lecture, I realise that I am following in the footsteps of some of the most illustrious and accomplished personages in Nigeria. You have, also, kindly sent me copies of some of the previous lectures. I am, therefore, well aware of the high standard that has been set for this programme. I salute the leadership of the Nigerian Institution of Surveyors, Lagos State Branch, not only for sustaining the legacy of your leader and mentor, but, more importantly, for remaining faithful to the standard of excellence that he lived for.

Speaking of legacies, the word ‘legacy’ is frequently used to describe the property that people leave their heirs when they die. But every human being also leaves behind a nonmaterial legacy – one that is harder to define but often far more important. This legacy comprises a lifetime of relationships, accomplishments, truths, and values, and it lives on in those whose lives they have touched.

Legacies can be positive or negative. A person who systematically disciplines his life so as to improve the lives of those around him and does his or her best to transform the lives of others in a positive way is bound to leave a positive legacy. These are people who, invariably, have a specific way of life that governs their thinking and their behavior. They systematically attempt to structure their lives in such a way that they become testimonies to whatever worldview they proclaim.

Chief Kukọyi, no doubt, left a positive legacy. Once again, I thank the Nigerian Institution of Surveyors for keeping the faith and for keeping hope alive.

I referred earlier to the concept of legacy sustenance. I know only too well the challenges that come with attempting to maintain standards in a society that considers such eternal standards and values outdated, and has chosen to embrace ephemeral symbolisms, be they ever so temporary. But, let us remember that, as Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “a people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” The signs of loss are already all too evident as we appear trapped in a never-ending, vicious circle of poor choices and their consequences.

The title of my presentation this morning is ‘Nigeria: Redefining Nationhood’.

What is a Nation?

A ‘nation’ may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history. In this definition, a nation has no physical borders (for example, some Nigerian ethnic nationalities). However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government (for example the inhabitants of a sovereign state) irrespective of their ethnic make-up.

Another definition is, ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture’.

In the view of Otto Bauer, author of Social Democracy and the Nationalities Question (1907), yet another definition is, ‘… an aggregate of people bound into a community of character by a common destiny.’

First Wave of Redefinition of Nationhood (1914)

If ‘nationhood’ is the state of being a nation, the foregoing definitions suggest that the first redefinition of nationhood took place in Nigeria in 1914 with her unusual ‘birthing’, through the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates. The territory thus created did not exactly fit into the definition of a nation because, apart from sharing a common territory and government, the union was neither voluntary nor did her diverse peoples share a common language, culture, history or identity.

Little wonder, then, that some of Nigeria’s founding fathers, and indeed one important representative of the colonial administration, expressed their anxiety about that experiment with nationhood. A few sample quotes will suffice:

On March 31, 1953, when Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the self-government motion, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, uttered one sentence – ‘the mistake of 1914 has come to light and I should like to go no further’.

Prior to that, in 1948, Sir Arthur Richards, later Lord Milverton and successor to Sir Bernard Bourdillon as Nigeria’s Governor General from 1943, said: “ it is only the accident of British suzerainty which had made Nigeria one country. It is still far from being one country or one nation socially or even economically… socially and politically there are deep differences between the major tribal groups. They do not speak the same language and they have highly divergent customs and ways of life and they represent different stages of culture.”

Earlier, in 1947, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first and only Prime Minister in the history of Nigeria, was reported to have said, “Since the amalgamation of Southern and Northern provinces in 1914 Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper …. It is still far from being united. Nigeria’s unity is only a British intention for the country.” His statement was recorded in the Hansard of that year.

In the same year, 1947, Chief Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ, in the chapter, titled, ‘Towards Federal Union’, in his seminal publication, ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom’, also wrote: “Nigeria is not a nation; it is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ or ‘French’; the word Nigeria is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.”

With regard to this statement by Chief Awolọwọ, Bonaventure Ozoigbo, in his paper, ‘Federal Balancing in Nigeria’, states what every fair-minded person believes, and that is that, ‘in this statement Awolọwọ was only being frank to the reality at hand, that is, (the) existence of (a) non-federal Nigeria.’

In any case, in his characteristic manner of not only identifying national problems, but also taking the time and trouble to seek viable solutions, Chief Awolọwọ subsequently devoted a substantial part of his political career to the propagation of federalism as the only viable path to true nationhood for Nigeria.

Permit me to reproduce a few of his thoughts in this regard:

On his preference for federalism, he says:

• ‘In 1951 when the controversy on the form of Nigeria’s constitution began, I had already been for more than eighteen years a convinced federalist.’ (AWO 1960)

And to prove that this was not a position he arrived at without rigorous consideration, he says:

• ‘Our own stand in this matter is well known. We belong to the federalist school. Nevertheless, we have elected to adopt a completely objective and scientific approach to our present search and are prepared to abandon our stand if we see sound reason for doing so. Accordingly, we have made a much more careful study of the constitutional evolution of all nations of the world with a view to discovering whether any, and if so what, principles and laws govern such evolution. We have found that some countries have satisfactorily solved their constitutional problems, whilst others have so far not. In consequence of our analysis of the two sets of countries, we are able to deduce principles or laws which we venture to regard as sound and of universal application… there are altogether six continents in the world… we will take the continents one by one…’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966);

• ‘…in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality – particularly of language – a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognized and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangements as such disappear.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966).

On the need for objectivity:

•‘It is incumbent upon us…to endeavour to discover, from the empirical facts which political history supplies, and from the conclusions which political scientists and analysts have reached, whether there are any patent well-established political principles by which our action can be guided. And if we discover them, to follow them with objective fidelity, whatever our predilections, personal feelings, or secret aspirations.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966)

On the need for a suitable constitution he says:

• ‘In our view, three factors combine to produce political stability: the type of constitution, the form of government, and the calibre and character of political leaders in and outside government…

As regards the type of constitution, political scientists and analysts have reached two firm conclusions, namely, that a unitary constitution will not work in circumstances which warrant a federal constitution… Suitability is, therefore, of the essence of a constitution. This is so for all countries of the world. It is so for Nigeria where the search for a suitable constitution has gone on for more than 20 years, and still goes on today with renewed vigour and reanimated fervour. We predict that the search will go on after this generation of Nigerians has passed away, unless we are realistic and objective enough to give ourselves now a constitution which is suited to the circumstances of our country and which will, therefore, endure.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966)

On the alleged threat to national unity by a truly federal constitution, he had this to say:

• ‘…in the peculiar circumstances of Nigeria, only a federal constitution can foster unity with concord among the diverse national groups in the country, as well as promote economy and efficiency in administration…

…if federalism had not disrupted the unity of those other countries which have operated this type of constitution for decades it cannot by itself impair or ruin the unity of our own country.’ (Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution 1966)

From the foregoing, therefore, we can see that Chief Awolọwọ, painstakingly, proffered solutions to what he had earlier perceived as Nigeria’s defective nationhood and, thereby, lent credence to the opinion that Ray Ekpu expressed some 40 years later in the Guardian newspaper that, “being a geographical expression is not a death sentence. Most countries of the world are some sort of expression – geographical, ethnic, linguistic, and religious. They all have their differences and imperfections but they work hard to reduce their differences and increase their similarities. We should do likewise.”

In other words, it would be grossly inaccurate and unfair to insinuate that, by describing Nigeria as ‘a mere geographical entity’ in 1947, Chief Awolọwọ was somehow writing off her future prospect of ever being transformed into a nation.

Rather than remain in denial about our ethnic divergence, geographical separateness and diversity, different economic visions, divergent resources, religious differences and, above all, linguistic and cultural differences, we would do much better to acknowledge and embrace them through a truly federal constitution.

The tragedy, however, is that, 53 years after Chief Awolọwọ predicted it in 1966, we are still searching for a suitable constitution because we have failed to accept wise counsel and be ‘realistic and objective enough to give ourselves … a constitution which is suited to the circumstances of our country and which will, therefore, endure.’ We have failed to do that which is necessary to set Nigeria on the path to true nationhood.

The Second Wave of Redefinition of Nationhood, Travails of Federalism in Nigeria and Current Realities

A federal system of government is defined as a system of government whereby the powers of the government are divided between the national or central government and the governments of the component states, regions and provinces and in which each is legally supreme in its own sphere of authority. Both federal and regional governments are co-ordinate and independent of one another as regards the powers and functions expressly or impliedly given to them by the constitution.

Up until 1945 when the Richards Constitution was introduced, Nigeria was administered, to all intents and purposes, as a unitary state. The Richards Constitution was, however, more federal in character, although leaders like Chief Awolọwọ believed that it did not go far enough. Their reasons had to do with the fact that, in their view, the delineation of the three regions was arbitrary and that the minorities were not given sufficient recognition and autonomy.

A review of the Richards Constitution was undertaken under the administration of Sir Richards’ successor as Governor General, Sir John Macpherson. The review was carried out by the General Conference in 1950. Prior to this, however, consultations by the Northern, Eastern and Western Regional Conferences returned a unanimous preference for a federal constitution. The Macpherson constitution therefore retained federalism, the imperfections in its other details notwithstanding.

This was, perhaps, the first glimmer of hope that, despite her unusual creation, the goal of forging a nation with a common destiny might be achievable in Nigeria after all. So, for the purpose of this presentation, the Macpherson Constitution represented the second wave of redefinition of nationhood.

At that time, each of the three regions, North, East and West, had its own constitution. They even had foreign representation and their envoys were known as ‘Agents General’. That was the extent of the autonomy the federating units enjoyed under the constitution.

In the area of resource control, the Chick Commission, in 1954, recommended the principle of derivation ‘in the fullest degree’.

The regions, therefore, exercised substantial control over their resources and significant power over the pace of their development. That was the age of what Pat Utomi calls, ‘competitive communalism’, the outcome of which was the delivery of real, substantial dividends of democracy to the people. It was the era of real and rapid human capital, economic and infrastructural development.

The calibre of leaders of that era, no doubt, also made a significant difference to the achievements of that ‘golden age’ of Nigeria’s history. They were single-minded in their pursuit of the best interests of the people they represented. They were visionary, they were always mindful of the verdict of history and they were determined to secure for themselves a place on the right side of it.

At the time, a parliamentary system of government was in place, the advantages of which included the regular checks and reviews of the activities of government and its functionaries through ‘question time’ in parliament.

By far the greatest advantage of the parliamentary system, in view of current politics in Nigeria, was the fact that the constituency for election, even for those aspiring to become Prime Minister, was no larger than the Federal Constituencies, as delineated. Consequently, the cost of running campaigns was nowhere near the colossal sums we hear being expended for Presidential elections these days. What is more, the nation could be confident that the representation of the crop of leaders so elected enjoyed the confidence and approval of the people who knew them best, their immediate community.

As for the electorate, the irony is that despite the fact that the literacy rate was far lower in those days than is currently the case (~16% in 1959 and ~51% in 2018), they proved far more alive to, and more discerning in matters of politics, civic responsibility and choice of leaders than today’s electorate.

So in the first republic, the constitution was suitable in the sense that it guaranteed the powers and the resources to the leaders who, themselves were supremely capable of harnessing both for the purpose of moving their regions, and the nation forward and were, for the most part, regularly held accountable for their actions.

Third wave of redefinition of nationhood

All the diverse nationalities in Nigeria have shared a common territory and government for the past 104 years, yet nationhood appears to elude us still.

Although it was mostly in response to minority and other agitations, the number of federating units was increased from the original three to four in 1963, to twelve in 1967, to nineteen in 1976, to twenty-one in 1987, to thirty in 1991 and to thirty-six in 1996. However, Nigeria does not appear to have moved any closer to achieving nationhood as a result.

The reason for this anomaly probably has to do with the introduction, in 1966, of a unitary system of governance which subsists in practice till today in a country that is supposed to be a federation. This reversal, then, represents the third wave of redefinition of Nigerian nationhood.

Paradoxically, although the goal of the agitators for more states was for greater autonomy, the ensuing proliferation achieved the exact opposite. As the number of states increased, the central government became stronger while the states became weaker, contrary to what obtained in the first republic. So much so that today, a good number of states are considered unviable.

As a result, cross-national and social tensions persist and, in some cases, are on the increase, sometimes assuming a more violent nature.

Furthermore, the powers vested in the President and the Federal Government by the constitution are so enormous that they could, in the wrong hands, conceivably, pose an existential threat to Nigeria’s unity and nationhood. Indeed, no sector, public or private, is totally immune from these magisterial powers.

In addition, there are lingering concerns within some ethnic nationalities about the perceived inequity that flows, in their view, from the current governance structure of the country.

In the area of leadership, the truth is that today, we appear to be as far away from the ideals and vision of Nigeria’s founding fathers as we have ever been. Embarrassing human development indicators, especially when compared to countries with which we were at par, or even in advance of at independence, remain inescapable pointers to the downward spiral in the fortunes and the quality of life of most Nigerians.


Nigeria Ghana South Korea

Rank 152/185 139/185 18/185

Life expectancy at birth 53.1 years 61.5 years 82.1 years

Education (expected years of schooling) 10.0 years 11.5 years 16.6 years

GDP per capita $2,457.8

($96.81-1961) $1,361.1




Here, the comparison with South Korea is deliberate. In 1961 Korea was one of the poorest nations in Asia, with a per capita income rather lower than that of Ethiopia, and much lower than those of Nigeria and Ghana, but by the late 1990s their per capita income was in excess of $10,000 (Nigeria $300.6) and Korea was accepted as Asia’s second member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Still on leadership, there appears to be a consensus, of sorts, among the political elite. But that consensus appears to be limited to the privileged.

Furthermore, the quality of political leadership in Nigeria appears to be in decline even as the bar of expectation and, indeed, the sense of civic responsibility on the part of the electorate, has been reduced to an unacceptable low. Whether this situation was foisted on us by deliberate design or is simply a consequence of one on the other is immaterial.

The consequences are the same, and they include the following unfortunate developments in the polity:

1. Unprecedented ferocity of electoral contests;

2.Outrageous cost of running for office, with its consequent, seemingly irresistible lure towards corruption. Political brokers/middlemen smile all the way to the bank while blackmailing politicians and, at the same time, exploiting the masses;

3. Increasingly transactional nature of elections, the consequence of which is the total disempowerment of the electorate;

4. Lowering of standards in leadership recruitment as capable people opt out of the ‘game’;

5. A dangerous disconnect between the political elite and the citizenry, while ordinary folk are reduced to the level of Stalin’s allegorical, unfortunate chicken. The elite, meanwhile, continue to play the opportunistic self-interest card, at the expense of everyone else;

6. The greatest casualty in all of this, of course, is not only our democracy or even the threat to our quest for nationhood. The greatest casualty is our development and, in turn, the future of Nigeria and coming generations of Nigerians.

7. Political parties, which are supposed to play a pivotal role in fostering national development and good governance through various strategies, including grassroots mobilisation around important issues, as well as leadership grooming, appear to be more interested only in the 4-year cycles of elections and the power play that goes on in-between.

Towards the Fourth Wave of Redefinition of Nationhood: Recommendations

The Imperative for Restructuring

If years of experience under a unitary system have taught us anything, it is that it is unrealistic, inefficient and inappropriate to attempt to administer a country as diverse as Nigeria from a central government.

Undoubtedly, therefore, a fourth wave of redefinition of the Nigerian nationhood is long overdue and the need for it has now assumed an exceptional urgency. We may have started out as a ‘geographical expression’, but we possess the capacity to transform into a nation if we take the right steps. The first step, in my humble opinion, is to adopt a system that would guarantee equity and justice for all, regardless of ethnicity or social class, within our borders.

As has been established earlier in this presentation, the current unitary framework has never worked, and it is not working for Nigeria. A comparative review of the previous three waves of redefinition of nationhood show, very clearly, that only the second wave had a positive impact on Nigeria, her development and her peoples. The distinguishing feature of that second wave was a federal constitution, as opposed to the unitary structure of the first and third.

I, therefore, submit, with all the emphasis at my command, that the only way forward, towards true Nigerian nationhood, is to restructure the polity by putting in place a suitable constitutional framework, in other words, a return to a Federal Constitution.

I would also like to submit that a return to the parliamentary system of government is should be given serious consideration as we restructure the polity.

Permit me to quote Professor G. G. Darah on this matter:

‘…Restructuring is necessary to reduce the imperial powers of the federal centre and devolve political, economic and judicial powers to the federating units. The unitary system demands an emperor or conqueror to preside over the country…… In 50 years, the imperial system has destroyed economic autonomy of the States. Politics and elections have become more important than economic and social development. The unitary system must be dismantled to return power and autonomy to the federating units to manage their affairs and foster merit and quality leadership. Restructuring is a pacific/peaceful way to return Nigeria to federal justice and equity…’


One of the keys to nationhood and, indeed, any nation’s success is the ability to build a consensus around goals within a shared destiny. Sadly, that is not quite our reality here in Nigeria yet. Fortunately, we have not given up on the benefits of dialogue. Conversations are on-going and significant strides are already being made towards achieving the desired consensus, even on the matter of restructuring.

Some of the other fundamental issues on which a national consensus would be desirable include, but are not limited to, human capital development as an absolute priority, good governance and the need to seriously address the youth bulge.

Our aspiration for rapid national development naturally entails that we consider human capital development as an absolute priority, especially in the face of the existential threat of the consequences of not keeping pace with a fast-changing, knowledge-driven world. If we factor in the fact that those changes will lead to a very significant reduction in global demand for fossil fuel and, therefore, our nation’s revenue, we would understand just how real the danger is.

In 1961, Korea embarked on one of the most dramatic economic and social transformations ever achieved in human history. For the entire period between 1961 and 1997, a staggering average growth rate of ~9 per cent was achieved.

Massive investment in the education of its citizens, that is, investment in human capital, is widely acknowledged to account for the remarkable transformation of South Korea from a third to a first world country in one generation.

I am trying not to sound alarmist but, consider with me the pace at which technological innovations are already ruling the world and the training that is already available to prepare children in the developed world, not only to cope, but also to improve their skills in innovativeness and problem-solving.

Place that side-by-side with the Nigerian situation in which 13 million children are out of school in 2018 (the highest in the world), and where even those that are fortunate enough to be in school receive low quality education, when the rest of the world is already far into the fourth industrial revolution, and you will catch a glimpse of the enormity of the problem.

So, I repeat, we need to forge a consensus on massive investment in human capital development (education and health) because therein lies our hope for economic and social advancement and, more importantly, political stability.

Good Governance

On the issue of good governance, let me first of all say that, despite the many imperfections in its current practice, democracy remains the most desirable option for Nigeria. However, serious efforts need to be made by all stakeholders to reform and strengthen its performance.

The concept of good governance centers on the responsibility of governments and governing bodies to meet the needs of the masses as opposed to select groups in society. Patriotism, on the other hand, flows from a citizenry that is confident that they, and every aspect of their lives, matter to their government. Both are highly desirable in a nation.

Good governance assures that corruption is minimised, the views of minorities are taken into account and the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. A good government is also one that is responsive to the present and future needs of society.

In this regard, the quality of leadership is critical. Those who aspire to lead need to undergo a process of thorough self-preparation and critical self-examination first before presenting themselves to the citizenry as possible leaders. They need to ask themselves questions such as:

‘Am I a transformational or a transactional leader?’ In other words, ‘I am in politics for the benefit of everyone, particularly the weak and vulnerable, or am I in it to get what I can for myself, my friends and my family?’

‘Do I love my people in order to serve them better?’ is another important question that, according to the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, everyone who aspires to be in government should ask himself or herself.

And to the citizenry, Awo said in his autobiography, ‘…who are to judge the type of persons who should be appointed to rule a particular people? The answer is: the people themselves…It is the readiness and the yearnings and aspirations of the people that will determine the calibre and character of those who will rule them…’

A responsible citizenry should refuse to be compromised so that they would be better able to demand greater accountability and good governance from their leaders.

It is an established fact that political parties play a crucial role in well-functioning democracies, but where they are disconnected from voters and dominated by the elite, democracy tends to flounder. In Nigeria, parties need to accept that their relevance goes beyond electoral participation alone. They also have the responsibility to train and recruit leaders, as well as for rigorous mobilisation of the people around issues.

With regard to the youth, there is a theory that contends that societies with rapidly growing young populations often end up with rampant unemployment and large pools of disaffected youths who are more susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups. Also, countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth-bulge-related violence and social unrest. This sums up the Nigerian situation on both counts.

Therefore, urgent steps must be taken to address youth unemployment which currently stands at ~36.5%.

After emerging from the profound sense of shame that surrounded the Japanese colonial occupation, national pride has been regained in Korea, and the feeling is that nothing is now impossible for the country to achieve. This success story has, of course, been told and re-told in Korean schools with great pride and as an inspiration to the next generation.

It is imperative that Nigerian history is re-instated in the educational curriculum in our schools so that children can develop a healthy sense of identity and national pride. Also, this way, they would be better prepared to make informed choices when they attain the voting age. Furthermore, success stories of Nigerians, wherever they may be found, should be part of Social Studies, for example, in order to showcase to pupils and students positive role models that they can aspire to emulate.

At the heart of our march to nationhood, lies the need for unity. “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” (J.K. Rowling). But, as I quoted earlier, ‘only a federal constitution can foster unity with concord among the diverse national groups in the country, as well as promote economy and efficiency in administration…’


Clearly, in order to return to the path of nationhood in Nigeria, it is imperative to restructure the polity, build consensus on fundamental issues and prepare the citizenry, particularly the youth, for effective leadership and responsible citizenship.

A restructured Nigeria portends the attainment of peace, unity and sustainable development. It is the sure path to nationhood.

In closing, let me leave you with Awo’s immortal words:

‘The Nigerian Federation…will succeed and survive not by the wishful and thoroughly unscientific thinking of some Nigerians, but only to the extent to which we are able, through rationally thought-out constitutional arrangements, to contain the centrifugal forces at work and subordinate them permanently to the cohesive and centripetal influences of politico-economic union and togetherness.’

Nigeria’s ‘golden age’ featured a federal constitution, a parliamentary system of government, and a stellar cast of visionary and selfless leaders. That was the winning formula. Therefore, it makes eminent sense to adopt this same formula now, through restructuring.

That, indeed, would be the ultimate, and best, Redefinition of Nigeria’s Nationhood.

May God bless Nigeria.

I thank you all for your attention.

Being the text of the 14th annual Adekunle Kukoyi Memorial Lecture delivered by Ambassador Olatokunbo Awolowo Dosunmu on January 23, 2019 in Lagos.