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Unity as Item on the Agenda

Unity as Item on the Agenda



0805 500 1974                    

The  prominence of the identity question in the 2023 politics is a great  proof that deliberate efforts  should be made by those in power to promote national integration.

It is easy to assume that any politician or political party seeking to govern Nigeria believes in national unity. After all, none of the 18 candidates who contested the February 25 presidential election canvassed the dissolution of Nigeria. Instead, items on their various agendas were presumed to be aimed at strengthening  the Nigerian nation.  Virtually all the candidates and political parties have given some space  on their agendas for issues of power devolution, restructuring, fiscal federalism etc.  All these issues are ultimately subject to constitutional resolution.

Yet, the tone and tenor of the campaigns as well as the aftermath of the elections have brought to the fore the identity question and national unity. 

This, of course, is no surprise given the content of national conversations in over  three decades  on the nature of the Nigerian federalism and multi-dimensional threats to national unity.

As German Philosopher Friedrich Hegel argues in his works on the philosophy of history, beneath all the political activities is the struggle of humanity for recognition and dignity:  “The people will learn to feel the dignity of man. They will not merely demand their rights, which have been trampled in the dust, but themselves will take them – make them their own.” It may be unwise to dismiss this as idealism in the context of the 21st Century Nigeria.

The process of promoting national unity would be greatly enhanced when the due recognition is given to each  person and every part of the whole of the nation. No amount of constitutional engineering would be a substitute for  the factor of  recognition and dignity as the identity question is being projected in the current politics.  The recognition of identity is subjective; but it shapes what objectively takes place in  the policy arena.

There is ample evidence in the record of the Buhari administration in the last 95 months to demonstrate this point.

For instance, amidst the ferment of the campaigns and  elections, President Muhammadu Buhari took some noteworthy steps  towards the amendment of the constitution to achieve devolution of powers.

Almost unacknowledged by the advocates of power devolution and restructuring, Buhari  signed into laws last month  16 bills seeking to amend various parts of the 1999 Constitution. Interestingly, the announcement of the politically important development came from the Joint Senate and House of Representatives’ Special Ad  Hoc Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution. By virtue of the new laws, 16 items have been  moved from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent list in the constitution. They  include financial autonomy of  the state legislature and  judiciary,  the power sector, airports, railway, and prisons, biometric information and criminal records. Some critics of the President have dismissed the above as giving a  “last-minute” impression of doing “something about restructuring and power devolution.” The proponents of an entirely new constitution are not impressed about the whole process of constitution amendments. They are raising a more fundamental query about the origins of the constitution. President-elect Bola Tinubu should be reflecting on how to find  answers to these questions. Meanwhile, the President says he has done his best in tackling the political problems.

With 40 days to the end of Buhari’s tenure, it might be apposite to recall what this reporter observed on this page on August 26, 2020. The column on that day was entitled “A Missing Item on the Buhari Agenda.” The missing item on the Buhari agenda  identified then was national unity. It was suggested on this page on another occasion that in addition to Buhari’s three point agenda of SEA – Security, Economy and Anti-corruption- a fourth one, Unity, should be added  to make the acronym SEAU. 

The basic argument  for prioritising national unity in governance made in the piece written 32 months ago  is the same as the one of today.

The argument was made at the time  as follows:

“President Muhammadu Buhari listed yesterday “nine priority areas” for the next 33 months.

Buhari said the areas of focus would “guide policy directions” so as “to improve the livelihood of Nigerians.”

“The areas of priority include poverty reduction, food security, power and energy, fighting corruption, security, promoting entrepreneurship, quality education, and affordable healthcare…

“Essentially, the listed areas of priority are a distillation from the broad cardinal programmes of Buhari on managing the economy to reduce poverty, ensuring security and fighting corruption.

 “Doubtless, 33 months are enough for the President to make a difference in the identified policy areas given competence in governance and sincerity of purpose. It doesn’t take eternity to demonstrate competence in governance. After all, the idea of celebrating 100 days in office has been traced to the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who took some landmark political decisions in just 100 days after arriving in Paris on his escape from Elba. In a more modern sense, American President Franklin Roosevelt launched the largely social welfare and construction programmes backed by laws, which defined his era, in the first 100 days in office. That was a period of about three months.

Here, Buhari still has good 33 months! So it would not be a misplaced optimism to insist that rather than dismiss the statement as another official gaseous talk, the Buhari administration should be put on its mettle

“There is, however, an item that is glaringly missing on the Buhari rebooted agenda. That is the imperative of working actively and honestly towards national integration. To achieve the purpose of any development agenda for Nigeria today, national unity cannot be discounted. It is a central factor. The issue has to be confronted in action and words.

The fact that Buhari did not list national unity as a priority could be an indication that the factor is taken for granted.

“Yet, all the other priorities could only be achieved within the context of a stable and united country in which people in every part feel a sense of belonging.

“In fact, the achievements in the listed areas would be gravely impaired if the conditions that could nurture warlords are created while Buhari is in the saddle. The matter is not helped by the seemingly insensitive statements by elements believed to be wielding enormous political influence in Abuja.

Such a posture on the part of those in power would amount to ignoring the realities of the nation. Nothing should be taken for granted in matters of unity. The important thing is for those who want it, especially the leadership, to make it a priority.

“It has been repeatedly emphasised here that nations are built by a committed people under a visionary leadership. Perhaps the only indispensable ingredient in the making of a nation is what a scholar calls the “collective state of mind.” The leadership should by its action and words promote this “state of mind.” It is the subjective feeling of having a sense belonging to a nation. It is more decisive than ethnicity, race, blood, geography, language or ancestry. There are people strongly committed to a nation without a state. The Palestinians are still struggling for a state. There are nations of races and ethnic groups. That is the reality of America. There are nations of different languages. Switzerland is an example. There are nations with contested territories. China once had its territory sequestered and the nation is still in the process of asserting its sovereignty on parts of its claimed territory. However, with the “collective state of mind” that a people belong to a nation all other gaps in nation-building could be filled.

“As the President spoke of his priorities in Abuja, there were reports of bloody clashes involving the State Security Services (SSS) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) that is campaigning for secession. The other day, a prominent politician in the southeast reportedly threatened: “If Nigeria tells the elites from the southeast that they would be treated as second class citizens in Nigeria, and that they can never be president, almost all of them will join (Nnamdi) Kanu to fight for Biafra.”

“The influence of the IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu must be widening for a former governor to even project that the political elite would join in the campaign for secession.

If the militancy in the Niger Delta appears to have slowed down, the discontents in the region are far from vanishing. Leaders from the unjustly treated region have taken the federal government to court over marginalisation in federal appointments. The degradation of the environment in the Niger Delta remains largely an unanswered question.

“The cry of marginalisation is almost universal in the Nigerian political landscape. It is not only the minority ethnic groups that say that they are being pushed to the margins in the management of national affairs. Every part now claims to be marginalised.

“The separatist impulse is also evident among the Yoruba of the southwest, the region that is said to be having relatively lower indices of underdevelopment on the average. All manners of maps and emblems of an Oduduwa Republic circulate in the cyberspace. Some are even talking of Yoruba Exit (Yexit), a most inappropriate imitation of the politics of Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU). To some of the elite the idea of national integration has become a very naïve one, if not contemptible. Such feelings should be understandable to a sufficiently perceptive national leadership, or what the inimitable Dr. Chidi Amuta calls “enlightenment leadership.”

“As in other zones, insecurity is a major reason cited by those in the southwest losing faith in the ideology of a united Nigeria. Despite the existence of the Nigerian state, people feel helpless in the face of violent crimes. Hence, the question: “which Nigerian nation are you talking about?” This trend is being given a strident voice in the media.

“The discontents might not have assumed a noticeable separatist tone in the three zones in the north. But the failure of the Nigerian state to protect people in the east, west and central zones of the north is undeniable. There are certainly ungoverned spaces in northern Nigeria given the activities of terrorists, bandits, kidnappers and other criminal elements. There have been reports that terrorists might be moving southwards. The crisis in Southern Kaduna has clear ethnic and religious tones. The toll of the dead and the scale of material destruction are such that the crisis is now attracting bitter responses from other parts of the country.

“The circumstances of many communities in Nigeria are not the type that could generate nationalist feelings.

“A noxious combination of these trends should worry a leadership that correctly reads the socio-political barometer of the nation.

Some of the statements being made in Nigeria today would be anathemas in the Second Republic. “The context, of course, was important. It was barely a decade after the tragic civil war. National unity was a big issue. The party that controlled the centre, National Party of Nigeria (NPN) always claimed with pride that one of its achievements was the commitment to national unity. President Shehu Shagari was presented as a unity president. Despite the word unity in its name, the commitment to national unity   by the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN)  was always questioned by the opponents who could not fault its social democratic agenda. The UPN leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was never trusted by his rivals on the question of unity despite the unmistakable national character of his agenda on education, health, job-creation and rural development.

“The point is that unity was at the centre of national conversations.

“So, official indifference cannot be an appropriate response given the dimensions the issue of national integration has assumed. It is also dangerous to assume arrogantly that the discontents would frizzle out.

“What is to be done?

“The greatest immunity against disintegration is the cultivation of a sense of belonging by doing justice to the people who feel inequitably treated in the nation.

“During the civil war, the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon had a battle cry relayed daily on radio : ’To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.’ To perform the task, Gowon needed the full weight of the armed forces on the federal side. Buhari may need to adopt the spirit (if not the words) of the slogan if things are not to degenerate further. But unlike Gowon, Buhari only needs moral and political weapons to perform the task. Political engineering should be employed as no leader can force nationalism down the throats of his people.

“Buhari should rise to the occasion as a true Nigerian leader. He should disprove by body language and concrete action the perception that he is a regional or an ethnic leader. His defenders may say he is doing a lot in this respect; but looking at the national horizon his best doesn’t seem to be good enough in many quarters. It is unhelpful to ignore the cries of marginalisation from any part of the country. It is the duty of the leader to make those who feel alienated to see the beauty of integration.

“For instance, Buhari should take a nationalist look at the report of the 2014 Constitutional Conference. He should not forget what his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), promised the electorate in its programme. The political strategists of the administration should rethink the official response to the clamour for restructuring. The administration has to decide what to do with it. To do otherwise is to create the atmosphere for the continued manipulation of the people along ethnic, religious and regional lines by the elite which substitutes its class interests for the interests of the people .

“More fundamentally, the President has to intensify the implementation of programmes of sustainable development to reduce poverty and promote social justice and equity in the interest of the poor majority, the people  who are horizontally marginalised in every town and village in Nigeria.

“That is a way of winning back those who are increasingly getting alienated from the cause of a united Nigeria.”

The proposition in the foregoing addressed to the Buhari administration  remains valid 32 months after it was written. The question of national integration will certainly remain conspicuous on the national agenda  after May 29, 2023.

In the APC agenda of  a “Renewed Hope 2023,” there are provisions for restructuring and constitutional amendments for power devolution. That formulation  might  not be enough in the present national situation. In the course of governance every step taken should be tested on the basis of how it promotes national unity. This would be akin to the universal recognition of human dignity of persons proposed by Hegel.

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