Nation-Building: Between Restructuring and Autonomy

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KAYODE Fayemi

GUEST COLUMNIST BY KAYODE FAYEMI

What would have been Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s idea of nation-building amidst the centrifugal forces emerging from almost all parts of the country to challenge the foundations of our nationhood as a united Nigeria? It seems to me that it would be fair to say, as Azikiwe would have done, that national security and development are dependent on a resolution of the National Question and the associated demands of nation- and state-building.

History and comparative experience teach us that where a broad consensus has been built on the fundamental issues underpinning the National Question, security and development becomes much easier to attain and sustain. One of the most critical factors for the success of any nation is the achievement of a broad and enduring consensus among the elite drawn from various walks of life on a fundamental set of questions that are germane to the establishment and nurturing of a stable foundation for the pursuit of security and development.

Yet, on the other hand, this is not a charge to be left to political elites only as doing so is bound to create resentment and feelings of exclusion among lay citizens. A nation’s theory of development can only derive from the consensus that has been forged on key national questions, especially those related to the issues of identity, religion, participation, justice, and the overall management of diversity. How these are mobilised to define the value of citizenship and to set the parameters for inclusion or exclusion within the nation’s socio-economic and political space. As such, there can be no successful nation-building in our current climate where a wide section of our citizens are apathetic to the very idea of the nation-state and perceive the political institutions that govern them as enemies. For many, nation-building is no more than age-old idealistic rhetoric that has no bearing on lived realities.

My argument has always been though, that we cannot speak of national development without first resolving the key issues of nation-building. I make bold, therefore, to say that the security challenges that are confronting us in all their various dimensions and ramifications, and all the issues of governance instability that we are confronted with are directly consequential upon our inability to settle some fundamental questions of nationhood and find points of convergence in a plural society like ours. Where the very existence of the nation itself is easily brought to question at the slightest provocation, it should serve as a warning to us that the very foundation upon which the nation stands is either weakening or has collapsed. In either case, measures aimed at reinforcing that foundation must be adopted speedily. Settling our foundational challenges, and doing so frontally, is a sine qua non for the successful forging of consensus that is needed for moving the country forward with a unity of purpose, a common vision of our greatness, shared values of solidarity, and a sense of equity, and justice.

. Yet the challenges of nation-building are not exclusive to Nigeria or African states as is often ascribed. Erstwhile model nation-states in the West are falling short of their cohesive ideals and grappling with the challenges of national divisiveness. In the case of Nigeria, some have argued, with some merit, I must admit, that we cannot build Nigeria into a truly united nation until we somehow boil down all our ethnic and other differences into one homogenous melting pot. “For the nation to live, the tribe must die” was the clarion call. This was the exact thinking that underpinned the Westphalian model of the modern nation-state in Europe. History has shown, however, that difference is a permanent feature of the human condition and it does not preclude the nurturing of bonds that unite. Moreover, human beings have natural affinities to their ethnic or linguistic groups that are too resilient to be simply swept aside artificially. This is true for most nations of the world, but even more so for post-colonial African states that emerged out of the European partition of continent in 1884/85. None of us chose to be Nigerians. But having found ourselves in this geographical space called Nigeria, we are left with two real alternatives. One is to make it work for everyone. The other is to break it up and let everyone return to their ethnic enclaves. The latter option has never proven to be better or more sustainable than the former.

Speaking in the context of Nigeria’s three regions in the early years of independence, Dr. Azikiwe noted as follows:

“Each of our three Regions is vastly different in many respects, but each has this in common: that, despite variety of languages and custom or difference in climate, all form part of one country which has existed as a political and social entity for fifty years. That is why we believe that the political union of Nigeria is destined to be perpetual and indestructible.”

It was a message to say that despite differences of various types, we are not confronted with cleavages that are insurmountable as we invest in the building of enduring parameters for nationhood. No political union is created perfect and none enjoys perfection as a permanent condition. What is encouraging, and which Azikiwe understood and preached always, is that through visionary leadership, doors are opened to us to invest in forging a more perfect union from generation to generation.

Like most of his contemporaries, Zik acknowledged our diversities in ethnicity, religion, tongues, and custom, but he regarded Nigeria as the “motherland.” I believe that in choosing to describe Nigeria as a “motherland,” he was being deliberate. No one gets to choose their mothers or change their mothers. It is a relationship that is “perpetual and indestructible.” In the context of the many historical events that have unfolded in the country over the years since independence, some have been tempted, in the thick of zero-sum partisanship, to suggest that perhaps Zik had too much faith in project Nigeria or allowed himself to be blinded to the many dysfunctions that have wracked the nation-building process. In my considered opinion, both suggestions are wrong and unhelpful insofar as they betray a fundamental understanding of the roots of his nationalism which set great store by unity in the march to greatness. As a key architect in the making of contemporary Nigeria, it would have been too much to expect that Azikiwe would also easily embrace a path that would lead to its dismemberment. To do so would have amounted to a wholesale self-repudiation.

The greatest test which he faced came at the onset of the Nigerian civil war and the polarization which required all key actors to pitch their tents with one side or the other in the conflict. It had to be one of the most difficult moments in his entire political life watching the potential disintegration of Nigeria while also seeking to understand the fullness of the grievances in Eastern Nigeria that unfurled the drive towards the creation of Biafra. One of the enduring controversies of the Nigerian civil war was the actual role that Dr. Azikiwe played – or did not play – in that conflict. It was the real-life equivalent of being caught between the rock and the hard place. Treading with the utmost caution, he did stick out his neck to make a plea for the abandonment by the conflicting parties of the resort to violence and a resumption of dialogue. Perhaps there is something in this approach that contemporary gladiators in the ongoing challenges to Nigerian nationhood may want to take as food for thought.

Like all people imbued with a profound intellect, Azikiwe’s favoured strategy for tackling differences was encapsulated by the French word “Parlement”, or parliament in English, which means discussions, meetings, or negotiations until a compromise can be forged. In the fight for Nigeria’s independence, Zik insisted that “we would not shed blood. We would not force the British to shoot at us.” And he advised all of his fellow anti-colonial nationalists around Africa to adopt the same strategy. In embracing the philosophy of non-violence, Zik was undoubtedly influenced by his experience with the civil rights movement in the United States and the example of Mahatma Ghandi. But apart from a deep commitment to humanism and the sanctity of human life, Zik’s non-violence was also borne out of pragmatism. He did not think there was any wisdom in taking to the battlefield against an enemy that is more powerful than you. However, armed with the heavy artillery of your intellect and the morality and justness of your cause, you can make an enemy retreat. Dialogue is more compelling and can oftentimes be even more resounding than the staccato of the Kalashnikov.

Zik’s non-violence also had nothing to do with a surrender mentality as some have suggested. Thus, even as he made efforts to stop the Nigerian civil war from becoming an inevitability and escalating, he also made it clear that justice, fairness, and equity in the administration of the commonwealth were fundamental pre-conditions for peace and unity to be won and sustained. He called for an end to the war hostilities and the reintegration of the Biafrans back into Nigeria, “provided,” he said that:

“Nigeria will continue to ensure the safety of persons and properties of Biafrans in one united country where all its citizens will be treated as equals without any discrimination. And where there would be opportunities for all citizens and inhabitants.”

History has taught us that wars, especially civil wars, could be one of how a country self-introspects and finds its true identity and a pathway to transformation. As with the American civil war which historians have suggested was also America’s war socio-economic transformation, there have been suggestions that out of the wreckage of the civil war, Nigeria might successfully reconstruct itself and move on to the path of structural change. All things considered, amidst the optimism unleashed under the banner of the three “Rs” of post-war reconstruction, reconciliation, and reintegration, few will disagree that we are yet to achieve the high hopes that flourished amidst the oil boom of the 1970s that we were well on the way to fulfilling our destiny to greatness. With persistent challenges of state and nation-building and a myriad of developmental discontents, the rise of separatist agitations in recent years, and the rhetoric of such agitation indicates that there are still people in this country who feel that Nigeria is not working for them; who still feel marginalised in the scheme of things; who frame this discontent in ethnic, religious, or regional terms; and who, therefore, believe that the only solution is for them to be allowed to go and form their own country.

It is important to note that complaints about marginalisation are not exclusively or always solely directed at the federal centre. Within the regions and states that have made up the Nigerian federation at various times since 1960, people who feel they are not getting a fair deal or equality of opportunities also complain of marginalisation. The standard solution that has been pursued has been to clamour for more states in the expectation that the interests of those who feel marginalised would be better served if they have a state of their own to themselves.

Going by the persistent agitation for the creation of more states, it is easy to assume that discontent at the sub-National level is real, persistent, and widespread. Since the 1946 Richard constitution that created the three regions of the Nigerian federation, agitations for the creation of more regions had been rife, particularly among the minority ethnic groups. The subsequent creation of states in 1967, 1976, 1987, 1991, and 1996 has not stemmed the vociferous demand for more states. While the 2005 National Political Reform Conference set up by the Obasanjo administration concluded that the creation of new states was not feasible, the 2014 National Conference by the Jonathan administration recommended the creation of 18 new additional states to make Nigeria into a federation of 54 states.

The infinite political market for the creation of an ever-increasing number of states in the Nigerian federal system is an indicator of the fact that the successive rounds of state creation which we have had to date have not produced the el dorado that successive generations of agitators thought the exercise would produce. The more states are created, the more new perceptions of marginalisation have multiplied. It cannot be viable to steer the country into an over-fragmentation that cancels out the effectiveness of the administration of the common good.

Another argument by those who are still clamouring for the creation of more states is that doing so will bring government closer to a particular people who were otherwise marginalised under a current arrangement. Even if this were true, it is debatable whether mere geographical proximity can deliver good governance and improve the quality of lives of the people without a corresponding commitment to development generally. Shared geographical space does not automatically translate into shared resources and equitable and fair distribution. Solidarity can at times be situational and if there is nothing more than agitation for states without deeper commitments to what constitutes shared values between state and citizens, the centre may not hold. There is no such thing as a homogenous society, not even a homogenous family. The ties that bind are the mutually shared values that accommodate differences. In the absence of this, conflict is almost always inevitable.

Perhaps, of greater concern, is the growing evidence that many of our states are fast becoming economically unviable. This situation would get worse as the amount that would be available for allocation from the centre dwindles in tandem with the decline in oil revenues. It is, therefore, reasonable to argue that the solution to the problem of lack of equity or marginalisation within a state is not the creation of more states, which may end up only creating new arenas of conflicts. Even if it were possible to ensure that only people of the same ethnic group or religion occupy a State, this would still not stop the complaint of marginalisation as some people would always be better off than others. I am from the most homogeneous state in Nigeria and I can confirm this.

The argument against the agitation for the creation of more states can also be extended to those who think that the best solution to the problem of real and/or perceived marginalisation in Nigeria is outright secession from the country. While it is easy to understand the sentiment that drives the kind of extreme position adopted by groups like the MASSOB or IPOB, one would still have to question whether this is indeed the best solution in the best interest of the people on whose behalf they have claimed to pursue the struggle. In attempting a response, it may be pertinent for us to remind ourselves of the experiences of countries that have faced the same kinds of challenges to unity and nationhood in recent times. I would like us to pause and look at the experience of these countries.

Amidst massive global goodwill, South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011, following an agreement signed in 2005 to end what was regarded as Africa’s longest civil war. According to South Sudan sources, the war was fought to resist “Islamisation and Arabisation” by the North and to preserve their ethnic identity as Africans, animists, and Christians. The discovery of rich deposits of crude oil in the South also added fuel to the conflict and reinforced agitations for separation, especially after the death in an air crash of the historic leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, John Garang. Those who had expected independence to bring the long-overdue peace to the Sudan, North, and South, were sorely disappointed when within two years of winning the freedom to self-determination, a civil war broke out within South Sudan itself, leading to the death of over 400, 000 people and the displacement of an estimated 4 million more.

In the period since then, the young country has alternated between conflict and uneasy peace, complete with a UN peacekeeping mission. In the meantime, in what was left of Sudan after the separation of South Sudan and its accession to independence, various mini-conflicts underwritten by an assortment of armed groups challenging the authority of Khartoum have been the order of the day. Darfur in Sudan became both an embodiment and symbol of the tragedy of war that befell the country even as South Sudan was also locked in a violent struggle for power-driven by inter-ethnic distrust and an unreconstructed system of political monopoly. Since the ousting of President Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, the North itself had been trapped in an unhappy transitional arrangement that has culminated in a second flexing by the military of its muscle in the domestic political process.

Those who are sold on the logic of secession may counter this analogy by outlining the differences between South Sudan and the South East of Nigeria and how the outcome of “independence” would be different in both cases. It is true that while the South East of Nigeria is relatively homogenous in language, culture, and religion, South Sudan has about 60 different ethnic groups. However, it is important to remember that when they were united in the fight against Khartoum for independence, the South Sudanese put up a united, practically “homogenous” front. The breakdown in their unity only burst into the open as independence loomed. No matter how homogenous it may appear, no society is ever bereft of differences and cleavages that require to be managed on an ongoing basis through engaged and visionary leadership.

If the simple fact of apparent ethno-cultural homogeneity was an absolute guarantee for stability and progress, we may never have had a cycle of genocides in Burundi and Rwanda or a broken Somalia on our hands. It is, therefore safe to state that while diversity does not guarantee a slide into war, homogeneity does not guarantee a sustained peace either. In fact, as the award-winning author Yuval Harari has argued, it is by our common conflicts and dilemmas that we define our identity, not by our common traits. Therefore, he observes, “the people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreement.” As we say in Yorubaland, “it is the person that you lie in the same bed with that you bump into.” We must, therefore, learn to manage our differences and do so in order to achieve the goal of a better and more perfect union.

If separation and secession are not as easy or simple as their proponents imagine, and given that they do not provide any guarantees that a better future can be secured through them, the demands for a national restructuring would seem to me to be worth keeping on the table for deeper consideration. In doing so, we have a duty to frame and contextualise the quest for restructuring as part of a normal process of regular and periodic adjustment and recalibration of governance arrangements to changing times and contexts. This would represent a departure from the negative and adversarial connotations which proponents and opponents have attributed to the idea of restructuring, turning it into another source of rancour, recrimination, and division. However, at the end, when all the dust around the issue settles, we find that we are all confronted with the same fundamental question: How do we make Nigeria work best for every Nigerian? Like the great Zik posited, how do we build a nation where the safety of every citizen is assured and where there would be equal opportunities for all, regardless of the language they speak, the place they come from, or how they worship God.

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe envisioned a country that would be “perpetual and indestructible” on account of its ability to remain adaptive and responsive to the shifting challenges and its commitment to meet the aspirations of every generation of Nigerians. The indestructibility of Nigeria, as envisaged by Zik is indeed best assured when the majority of Nigerians are emotionally connected to Nigeria because of what Nigeria is able to do for them. In essence, the legitimacy of the nation-state is not in making demands of patriotism but in the quality of life it provides for its citizens towards building mutual trust and the common good.

The question, therefore, is this: is Nigeria as currently structured capable of delivering the full benefits of citizenship to every Nigerian? The answer to this is obvious. Certainly, the growing army of our frustrated and disenchanted youths do not think so. One might even argue that our generation of young people are actively engaged in alternative spaces of micro nation-building projects of their own in the absence of a perceived nurturing state. We see this in the ways common identities and aspirational notions of what Nigeria could be in new media spaces, entertainment, and other forms of identity-making projects youths have taken up, and successfully too.

Yet, when the Nigerian story is told, we very often focus a disproportionate amount of attention on what does not work about our union. And perhaps that in itself may not be a bad thing if, rather than being weaponised to undermine our collective will, it is framed as a clarion call to do more and better and with greater purpose. It is important also not to forget that there exist important glues that bind us together as Nigerians regardless of our differences and these glues also deserve to be reinforced.

I am convinced that the problems that we are called upon to address and redress in building a better country are not beyond our grasp to tackle. With good faith and a generous dose of goodwill, we can, as we have done on various occasions in our history, summon that Nigerian genius to build on the things we have successfully erected together. We must strive to do so in the spirit of the kinds of noble values and principles that inflamed the spirit of a youthful Azikiwe to enrol at Lincoln University in a quest to discover the innate goodness in the human species with a view to building a better and freer world. We must never abandon the spirit of inquiry and discovery that led Azikiwe to join other nationalists to seek to create a nation-state founded on the best ideals of citizenship anchored on freedom and justice.

“We, the people of Nigeria,” must truly mean that our considered aspirations have fed into the document that would form the fundamental organising principle of our nationhood. The opportunities are there. The question of how to develop a democratic system that meets the expectations of our people and restore people’s trust in government; how to bring ethical principles, empathy, and efficiency into the heart of government and leadership at all levels; how to harness our demographic advantage and translate our youth population into an asset rather than a time bomb; how to build a society that is governed by the rule of law; how to build an electoral system that is reliable and efficient; or how to build a trusted, dependable and efficient judiciary. All these are at the very heart of what I see as the broad package of restructuring that we need to work towards. It is a package around which we can forge a broad consensus.

And I believe that we don’t need to go through another war or tear down our country to arrive at such a consensus.. Of course, the cynics among us would like to ask me that if I am so confident that we can resolve these issues through dialogue or any other form of parlement, how come such previous efforts have failed to lead to the desired outcomes? My answer would be that the national transformation that we seek can only happen through the transformation of the individual and the individual’s transformation in relation to fellow citizens and in relation to the nation itself. People create systems and not the other way round. It is only by the transformation of the individual that we can hope to do that which is necessary for the transformation of our country. While the notion of social contract is central in exploring the relationship between the state and citizens, as the Rabbi and moral philosopher Jeffrey Sachs reminds us – it is inadequate in dealing with our current challenges simply because;

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences. Social contract is about government. Social covenant about coexistence. Social contract is about laws and their enforcement. Social covenant is about the values we share. Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good.

For me, this encapsulates the idea of nation-building at its best. A contract must be founded on cohesion – a covenant to stay true to the agreed contract. All parties must agree to avoid contestations. Achieving a sense of common identity, strong institutions, and shared values as a nation is a process of building trust and finding unity in difference. This is how we build the sort of national relationship that is not an exploitative social contract but a moral commitment that combines individual and state obligations.

Permit me to conclude with this admonition. Regardless of how long it takes and whatever we do in-between, war or violence is never an option. I hold a Doctorate in War Studies. Therefore, I feel adequately qualified to speak about the futility of war and violence. There is absolutely nothing heroic about dying foolishly for a cause for which dialogue and negotiation can provide pathways to workable solutions. Whatever is worth fighting for, is worth staying alive for. I can very much hear this refrain flowing from the life experience and legacy of the great Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria.

*Dr. Kayode Fayemi, CON is the Governor of Ekiti State