Independence Day reflections -The Trouble With Nigeria
By JohnThomas Didymus
Today, October 1, is Nigeria’s independence day. Fifty two years ago, at the Race Course in Lagos, the British anthem was sung for the last time and the Union Jack lowered. A green-white-green flag was hoisted in its place and a new national anthem sung.
For a country that declared the official identity of a nation-state on October 1, 1960, Nigeria’s ethnic diversity is paradoxical. But the paradox is the legacy of colonial history in which the British imposed the Eurocentric paradigm of the nation-state, a political entity composed of people with a shared historical cultural identity, as the only viable political structure for the newly independent African states and left in a hurry with little time to allow Africans make sense of the unfamiliar contraptions they had inherited. The reality with the Nigerian “nation-state,” is the same as with many other floundering Africans states, in which, in spite of the term “nation-state” in describing the political entity, there is a state but no nation. “Nigerian” leaders inherited the Nigerian nation-state teratogeny from the British who created it ex nihilo, by the fiat of an imperial edict that was concerned only about the colonial administrative interests of London. And in the post-colonial era, African leaders have lacked the political will to effect the radical surgical operation required to correct the anomaly that is obvious to all, a non-nation state that parades structurally as though it were one. To a large extent, it is difficult to blame the British. The only experience our colonial masters had, as far as the concept of the political entity was concerned, was that of the nation-state; and as Basil Davidson observed in his seminal The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, there existed a firm conviction among the British creators of post-colonial African states and their African elite surrogates of the time, that the African state built in the model of the European nation-state of the 19th and 20th centuries was the only viable form of the political entity in the global environment into which newly independent African states were born in the mid-twentieth century. But there were a few insightful African leaders who realized that the reality of the ethnic-national mosaic, pejoratively termed “tribes,” represented the viable national units that should be center of focus through devolution of power in a loosely organized federation. But at the time, the preoccupation, especially among the Nigerian political elite, with the dream of the big African state that would soon rise to compete on equal grounds with European nation-states, smothered out the calls by the minority for a federal structure focused on smaller autonomous units with viable historical-cultural national identities. Thus, rather than tap into the potential benefits to nation building by exploiting the patterns of “tribal” loyalties inherited from pre-colonial history, “tribalism” became the enemy in the effort to build the fantasy called Nigeria.
The Western reader would understand the curse that is the Nigerian state as dominant federal power to aspirations of federating units when it is realized that before the beginning of imposition of the British Protectorate in the late 19th century, the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria and the Hausa-Fulani of Northern Nigeria were literally at each other’s throat in an apocalyptic fight-to-finish (much like Hitler’s Germany and Churchill’s Britain in Europe). Pax Britannicaordered the warring “Nigerian” groups home to their “wives,” as a British representative in Lagos literally put it in the late 19th century, when he ordered the war camps at Kiriji broken. At the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria in 1914 by the British colonialist, Sir Frederick Lord Lugard, there still were “Nigerians” alive who could still tell as eyewitnesses the celebrated Battle of Jalumi, at which the Yoruba war leader, Ajayi Ogboriefon, crushed the Fulani-Ilorin forces and ended the expansionist ambitions of the northern Hausa-Fulani in Southwest Nigeria, once and for all. The shadows of Jalumi, at which the military strategist Ajayi Ogboriefon and his footmen vanquished the Ilorin cavalry, hung over and influenced the bitter animosities of political struggle in the First Republic of the 1960s between Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s liberal Yoruba Action Group (AG) and the northern conservative Nigeria People’s Congress (NPC) led by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
, Although, the political struggle of the First Republic ended with the country plunged into a bitter civil war, the Biafran War, as it sometimes called, was largely an unfortunate diversion from the main theme of political struggle between the politically liberal Yoruba political elite in the southwest (the so-called Ibadan-Lagos axis) and the politically conservative Hausa-Fulani north in Sokoto. The Nigerian Civil War was mostly the result of a personal clash in the military hierarchy between Odumegwu Ojukwo and Yakubu Gowon following tactical failure of the bloody January 1966 coup led by young and radically leftist military officers Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. Both Gowon and Ojukwu were politically conservative officers whose struggle had nothing to do with the political aspirations of southern Nigerian liberals and intellectuals who chaffed under the rule of the conservative northern oligarchy.
But the thematic refrain of bitter conflict between the “strange bedfellows” of the Nigerian “nation-state” would resume in the Second Republic of the early 1980s. Once again, the rivalry of the epic battle for control of the federal center between the liberal Yoruba political elite of southwestern Nigeria under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the conservative Hausa-Fulani aristocracy of the north, with the southeasterners as pawns in the political power game, would overheat the polity so dangerously that a military coup d’etatin 1985, led by then Major-General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, would cause millions of Nigerians to heave a sigh of relief. The Fourth Republic that began in May 1999 (after abortion of the Third Republic, following Chief MKO Abiola’s ill-fated victory at the polls on June 12, 1993), witnessed a significant centrist realignment of political forces in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), away from both the northern right wing of the political spectrum and the western left wing. The result of the ideological watering down with the centrists in power has been the corrupt, incompetent and largely visionless government formed by the PDP ruling party that prides itself meaninglessly as the largest political party in Africa. But the centrifugal forces of “tribalism” would ignore the posturing of “Africa’s largest political party” as having reconciled the conservative North-liberal West conflict in Nigerian political history with the emergence of militant ethnic activism that began with the West’s left-wing Odua’s People’s Congress (OPC) in the early 1990s and the ethnic militias that merged under the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in protest of the uncontrolled exploitation of crude oil resources by the largely northern controlled federal government.
The final backlash was the emergence of Boko Haram in the north, covertly representing the claims of the extreme right-wing of the political spectrum to marginalization under the dispensation of the centrists who having entrenched themselves in power simply left the ship of state rudderless while they helped themselves to the spoils of office as wisdom dictates when you find yourself in control of a make-believe nation-state entity with uncertain future but with literally billions of petrodollars in its coffers. The irony of underdevelopment in Nigeria is that everyone knows that devolution of power from the federal center closer to the grassroots would do a lot to defuse the political rivalry tension that arises from winner-takes-all competition for the federal center between the federating units and release a lot of nation building human entrepreneurial and creative energies from its wasteful diversion to acrimonious political struggle for fruitful engagement in real human and resource capital development. But President Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the Nigerian Niger Delta, whose citizens have been agitating for autonomy, illustrates the “paw in the bottle” dilemma of power — that once you find yourself in control at the federal center with easy access to billions of dollars in oil revenues, the last thing you tend to think of is working to lose the privileges of access to such stupendously astounding wealth. That is why almost a century after a certain mistress of the British colonialist Sir Frederick Lord Lugard, named Flora Shaw, playfully coined the name Nigeria to describe a mere expression of colonial territory hurriedly fangled by the British for their colonial administrative convenience without a thought of the idea of a viable nation-state in mind, we Africans leaving within the boundaries of the same territory continue to identify ourselves as Nigerian nationals, a historically and culturally meaningless expression. And that, also, in summary, is how crude oil resources became “The Trouble with Nigeria,” a curse to us rather than a blessing.