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So, what is Nigeria?

Following my introductory piece on Nigeria’s biggest problems penultimate Monday, the elder statesman, Alhaji Mukhtar Gidado, called me from Kano for a long discussion. As…

Following my introductory piece on Nigeria’s biggest problems penultimate Monday, the elder statesman, Alhaji Mukhtar Gidado, called me from Kano for a long discussion. As it happens, he was very passionate about Nigeria’s problems and hence about the topic of the discussion itself. He is convinced, as I am now, that our biggest problem is what he called “a lack of a sense of self”, which the previous article describes as “a lack of that sense of Nigerian-ness”. We take this point further today.

So, what is Nigeria? And why does it matter? To the first question, there is an old answer. In his Path to Nigerian Freedom (1947), the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote that “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.”

In the book as a whole, Awolowo was in fact making the case for how a Nigeria of his understanding could be brought into being, as the birth pangs of self-government and political independence from the British set in during the second half of the 1940s. Unfortunately, to date, this statement has been cited again and again as a given, as a self-evident fact by generations of commentators, politicians, and whoever. But as an idea, it is severely limited and fraught with innumerable problems.

First, all countries are geographical expressions. There is nothing special or sacrosanct in being English, French or Welsh, or for that matter, American or Chinese other than as an appellation distinguishing those who live within the geographical boundaries of these countries. There is no nation of any kind without some territorial boundary to mark it off and those who live within it against others. Geographical distinction is a necessary and powerful component of national identity, however, defined, not a “mere” aspect of it.

For example, the idea of a “Yoruba Nation” or “Oduduwa Republic” today does not, and cannot, extend to parts of Benin Republic and Togo where millions of ethnic Yoruba people also live. These appellations make sense only in the geographic context of the present six states of south-western Nigeria. Without Nigeria to mark it off against, the whole idea of “Yoruba Nation” or “Oduduwa Republic” as a country or nation comprising ethnic Yoruba people crumbles to bits.

Second, Awolowo was speaking in terms of what some people love to call Nigeria’s ‘ethnic nationalities’ as the unit of analysis of what is Nigeria or should be. But the reality is that the ‘nation’ however understood, cannot be conceived only in terms of ethnicity, as the example of the Yoruba in Benin Republic and Togo above amply demonstrates.

Among those who identify and are identified as ‘English’ today are those with Indian, Punjabi, Sikh, Irish, Polish, Caribbean, African, Arab, Chinese, Russian, Latin American, and several hundred other ancestries. Indeed, in many cases, these ancestries are not more than two generations ago.

There are many Nigerians today who are also ‘English’ at the same time, as the example of MP and UK Secretary of Trade and Business, Kemi Badenoch should more than tell us. Therefore, to be ‘English’ is absolutely not to belong to any particular ethnic group, ethnicity, or ethnic nationality. The same applies to French or Welsh. In fact, even in 1947, when Awolowo was writing, being French went well beyond ethnicity or ethnic nationality, given France’s well-known policy of ‘assimilation’ of very diverse peoples into the same fold of a French identity.

Nigeria is not really different. There are millions of people in Nigeria today who identify and are identified as “Hausa” but whose grandparents were not. It is also true of the “Yoruba” in present-day Nigeria. If anyone landed in today’s Oyo town in 1850, and said he was looking for ‘Yoruba people’ or a ‘Yoruba person’, hardly anyone there at the time will even understand what the word means. Yoruba is a relatively recent identity, invented and reproduced in the course of recent Nigerian colonial and postcolonial history.

The people who lived in what we now call Yorubaland used to regard themselves, and were regarded, very differently and separately, as Ijebu, Egba, and so on. They even fought wars of supremacy among themselves. That these older identities have given way to the new and broader one of ‘Yoruba’ is entirely a matter of Nigeria’s British colonial statecraft. The same applies to the ‘ethnic’ identity we now call “Igbo”.

The real point here should be clear by now. Ethnic and national identities are not cast in stone or unchanging. Rather, they are slowly but constantly shifting, taking new forms and shedding old ones as historical circumstances change. In other words, if ‘Nigeria’ did not exist in 1947, it could and should today, in the same way that ‘Yoruba’ did not exist before in the sense it now does. That a national sense of self has not yet evolved in Nigeria, or not sufficiently enough, is not about our ‘differences’, but a failure of statecraft and ability, nothing more.

Unfortunately, it has had the most devastating of consequences, and explains, probably more than anything else, where Nigeria is still where it is today. In many countries, the dominant idea of national identity is challenged by groups who do not feel that sense of belonging to the whole enough, as we have seen with the Scotland question in Britain, the Catalan and Basque questions in Spain, or Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan in China, among others. In one sense, Nigeria’s situation is similar to these countries. But in other ways, Nigeria is still different.

In our case, it is not just that the question of what Nigeria is or should be remains unresolved. It is that almost all national political energy is expended on assailing it. “We are not the same, we cannot be the same”, remains the dominant cultural and political attitude to date. One consequence of this is that it has unleashed a siege mentality among the general citizenry. Everyone feels frustrated by what currently exists as Nigeria, yet no one has really ever imagined anything better. And if we cannot imagine anything better, should we not try to make what we have now the very best possible? For me, this is the challenge.

Second, as all national energy is expended on assailing the very idea of what Nigeria is or should be, there is not enough energy left to evolve the sort of values and institutions needed to build it. Nearly all ideas and actions are directed towards tearing it apart, sometimes, deliberately, but most of the time unwittingly. So you have a country that is forever tethering on the brink. Yet, the difference emphasised in the so-called idea of Nigeria’s ‘ethnic nationalities’ is entirely fictional. All of Nigeria is African. All of Nigeria is black. These two identities supersede any others and are large enough to build a Nigerian national identity upon for all of us.

But the politics of perpetual internal conflict prevents us from seeing this. And thus, this ‘enemy within’ mentality means that the real enemies of poverty and underdevelopment everywhere at home, and of political, cultural and economic competition with the rest of the world, go scarcely attended. Nigeria is today completely diminished even in the eyes of its African neighbours because other Africans cannot understand why all we do is to fight each other, over the same issues again and again, forever. A country—big or small—is nothing without a sense of self to hold it and drive it towards self-realisation.

This article was earlier published on November 15, 2021

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