GUEST COLUMNIST BY KAYODE FAYEMI
No country in the world and in human history was created as a fully and permanently united entity from the outset. This is as true for multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries as it is true for those that are thought to be more homogenous. Indeed, in every country in our world, the task of managing diversity and difference in order to forge a common purpose and vision around which to rally the citizenry is a permanent condition of life – and a constant demand on leadership. Unity is never given ab initio or permanently; it requires to be nurtured and worked at constantly and on an on-going basis. And it is for this reason that governments and citizens alike cannot afford to take unity for granted or imagine that it is offered on a platter or acquired as an automatic given.
One of the imports of my observation that leaders and citizens have a duty to invest in and grow unity as a full time vocation is that those of our compatriots who, out of a modestly understandable frustration, often say that the Amalgamation of 1914 was a “mistake”, will do well to keep in mind that most countries in the world today are indeed the products of an involuntary and/or compelled mergers of peoples who, once brought together under the same roof had to work to forge bonds of unity among themselves. The important point which we must always remember is that unity anywhere and everywhere is an outcome that is generated out of initial conditions that are not by any means perfect. There is, therefore, no bypassing the hard work that leaders and governments must put in to build, sustain, and renew unity. And it is that hard work that we must call upon ourselves to undertake, doing so in faith and hope, with patience and patriotism, and an abiding commitment to the common history and humanity we share.
In the same way that unity is not an automatic given that can be taken for granted, so also is disunity not a fatalistic inevitability into which we are locked in perpetuity. No people are condemned to a life of permanent and perpetual disunity. Imperfections and failings in any union manifest themselves in various forms and shapes. Differences and disagreements exist alongside cleavages and contradictions. We must learn as a people to accept that these are hard facts and features of any polity. Properly handled, they may be turned into important drivers of a socio-political dynamic that propels countries forward in their march of progress. Mismanaged and compounded, they may fester and become threats to stability and togetherness. Disunity of the kind that goes behind difference and divergence and which threatens violent collapse is, therefore, a mark of failings in governance, not the inevitable fate to which a people are condemned.
In going to some length to dispel popular misconceptions about unity and disunity, I do not by any means wish to deny or downplay the fact that as a country, we in Nigeria are faced with some of the most severe tests of our nationhood since the end of the civil war of 1967 to 1970. Rather, what I seek to convey, drawing on global comparative experiences, is to remind us that the choice of striving to build and sustain a united country belongs entirely to us. We can either opt to exercise that choice or forfeit it. All things considered, I believe that most of us will easily and effortlessly opt to be part of and live in a united Nigeria as long as it can be made to work for us in equity, justice, inclusivity, and harmony. I submit that the duty of ensuring that type of a united country belongs to all of us collectively even if leaders at all levels and from various walks of life also carry a special responsibility.
For a people who have been in interaction with one another through commerce, migrations, diplomacy, religion, and inter-marriages centuries before the onset of colonial rule and the Amalgamation of 1914, it is clear that innumerable webs of inter-connection and inter-dependence have been woven over the ages that have served as important glues in the fabric of the country. Indeed, based on the evidence of history and the contemporary sociological patterns of our country, it is incontestable that we have at least as many ties – if not more – that bind us together as differences that arise from time to time to pitch us against one other. For those commentators who have often wondered aloud how and why in the face of recurrent episodes of adversity, the Nigerian centre still manages to hold where in other countries faced with far lesser and fewer challenges they buckle precipitously and even flounder, they may wish to look more closely at the many tangible and intangible ties that form the strong underlying bond that holds the country together.
Two immediate implications flow from the foregoing. The first is that in the face of challenges, we must all learn to more effectively put the thorny matters that confront us into better perspective.
Robust debate, principled disagreement, and honest scepticism are not in and of themselves bad for a polity; in fact, they comprise some of the main ingredients that make for a healthy system of governance and a thriving pluralism. What is bad is when divergences in opinion and interest are too hastily and opportunistically loaded with unhelpful baggage that play on structural divisions and stir up negative emotions as to turn any and all disagreements and difference into zero-sum encounters in reckless brinkmanship or irresponsible populism. We must all learn to be charitable with one another at all times and stem the temptation to impute the most sinister motives to the pronouncements and actions of those with whom we find ourselves locked in disagreement.
The second implication of the foregoing is the imperative of paying much closer attention to the many things that unite us and ensuring that they inform our pronouncements and actions. There once was a time when these factors of cohesion and communion featured prominently in the efforts at nation-building and the construction of a national identity into which we were socialized after independence in 1960. Unfortunately, over time, these efforts were abandoned or severely diluted, and no longer feature in citizen and leadership training that are still on offer.
As a matter of urgency, the efforts need to be restored, updated, and expanded at all levels, beginning with our educational curriculum and extending to the myriad of bodies such as the National Orientation Agency and the National Youth Service Corps. Success in doing so will provide a much needed corrective to the tendentious narrative that we are a group of incompatible aliens corralled and compelled against our will and wish to live under the same national roof. It will also help to place difference and disagreement in a proper and broader perspective.
To be sure, unity cannot endure where injustice, exclusion, inequity and marginalisation are embedded in the practice of governance. That is why as leaders, we must pay attention at all times to ensure that as we work to deliver on our mandate, fairness and equity are made our watchwords at all times. Our commitment to these values must not simply be minimalist – doing only the barest minimum required of us by the constitution – or token – just for the sake of playing to the gallery – or even rhetorical – through the paying of lip service. Our commitment must be robust, consistent, and demonstrable so that citizens have absolutely no doubt about the important place they occupy in our policy and political priorities. As leaders, we must not only embody the ideals of national unity but also be seen to be their active torch bearers at all times. This way, we build popular trust in our actions and erase doubts about our intentions.
In the face of some of our recent challenges, I have often shuddered at the spectacle whereby some among us who have been entrusted with leadership responsibility very easily slide into the role of ethno-regional champions, xenophobes, and zealots. While it is normal that leaders must have their ears to the ground and feel the pulse of the people who have elected them – imbibing, reproducing, and spilling out raw and crude bile and pushing scorched earth solutions crosses the line of representation to become an exercise in the shirking of responsibility. Unlike the bulk of their followers, leaders are positioned and privileged to know that in matters of nation- and state-building, the world is far more complex than the simple and many at times simplistic binary divisions that are frequently deployed to oppose black and white. Leaders must truly lead by using the broader, more complex, and better nuanced understanding they have to help moderate and modulate seasons of deep division in the polity, rather than becoming the ones who add fuel to a raging fire.
Fostering unity in a context of multiple diversities no doubt requires fulsome attention to equity, justice, fair play, and merit. But we should also be clear that unity benefits considerably from vertical and horizontal solidarity as a key building block, lest we end up with a tyranny of meritocracy. We know from the best experiences in history that solidarity cements a sense of shared destiny among the peoples who make up a country. Contrary to popular claims that have been deployed to make the case for disintegration and separatism, solidarity does not negate merit or downplay professionalism. Instead, it serves as a political and ethical basis for engineering the structures and processes of forging a sense of oneness. Solidarity in this regard must be understood in all its dimensions: inter-group, inter-gender; and inter-generational. It offers hope to all citizens that no one will be wilfully excluded or sidelined whilst strengthening faith in the fact they belong to a country that cares.
I also believe that we should mark the start of a people-driven and mass-based effort to reaffirm the foundations of our unity. To this end, it may be worthwhile to consider birthing The Nigeria Agenda for Unity, Progress and Prosperity. Doing so will be our way of sending out a clear message that it is now time out to and a red card for agendas that do not emanate from a place of unalloyed commitment to advancing our unity in our forward march to greater heights. I encourage the patriots organised under the banner of the National Prosperity Movement (NPM) to work with other like-minded bodies and redouble efforts towards the launching of The Nigeria Agenda and strive to make it the platform on which we should invest our efforts at stabilising the country on an even keel.
Finally, let us remember the important reminder which the late Ali Mazrui, foremost political scientist, shared with us as Africans: We are the people of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow. Let us dig deep into the lessons of our history and the comparative experiences of others in order to claim tomorrow as ours in our journey of national rebirth and progress.
•The above are excerpts from a statement made recently by Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Ekiti State, at a National Unity Summit in Abuja