Creating a Nigerian national spirit
Have argued in my previous essay that Nigerians do not feel a sense of “ownership” of government in the same way in which they feel or have for their ethnic nationalities or their personal things or causes.
Nigeria is a country of many ethnic nationalities more than 350 as some statistics say) and government is the instrument that binds these nationalities together under a single country called Nigeria. My argument has been that because Nigerians do not feel that social, traditional, historical or cultural connection or affinity with this machinery called “government” that can engender that sense of “ownership” they are unable to feel loyal or committed to it and correspondingly unable to inspire a Nigerian “national spirit”.
To create and inspire a national spirit, we must transform “government” to something that Nigerians see as their own, something through which they can advance themselves and their ethnic national aspirations. It must be for them something that is designed and aimed at advancing their interests, protects and provides for them and allows them to pursue their aspirations in the modern world. I believe that to inspire a national spirit we must recreate the nation and found it upon the basis of the ethnic nationalities that presently consist in the territory called Nigeria.
To understand this assertion better, we must look at the history of this geographical entity we call Nigeria. Historically, the entity called Nigeria was put together by the British through colonialism. Before the colonialism of the British, the peoples of Nigeria lived as different ethnic nations under their own indigenous forms of government. There were the bigger kingdoms and empires such as the Oyo Empire, the Benin Kingdom, the various Hausa States (later Emirates), the Kanem-Bornu Empire, Nri Kingdom and the many other smaller kingdoms and chiefdoms of the smaller ethnic groups that fall within the territory. Some of these ethnic nationalities were at war with each other at the time the British arrived.
When the British took control of this territory, they pulled all these nations together as one territory and called it “Nigeria” (after the River Niger) and put in place a single system of government to administer the territory and these different ethnic nations together as one for their own administrative convenience. This was done purely for the convenience of the British in administering the territory. They did not seek or pretend to seek the opinion of the people. In many areas, the British assumed control by deceiving the leaders of the people. In other areas where the people refused to be deceived, the British took control by force.
The government which the British put into place and the system of laws was aimed purely at exploiting the people and their resources for British interests. There was absolutely no consideration for the people, their cultures or their interests. The system was designed to hold the people captive and subjugate them to British interests. For the people, government therefore was an alien thing, something imposed upon them by their British conquerors. This view of government as being an alien thing is best illustrated by how in my native dialect (Yakurr) “work” in the civil service or the public service to this day is called “the white man’s work” when literally interpreted.
In the quest for independence, this system as put in place by the British was the system that was to be inherited and taken over by the Nigerian political leaders. The interesting thing about the politics of independence was that it was understood by all the parties - the British and the agitators for independence that whoever controlled this system of government had control of the territory called Nigeria and consequently its’ peoples and its’ resources. It was a contest for power.
The politicians and their political parties were formed and aligned largely along the lines of the various ethnic nationalities. The Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) - represented the largely Hausa/Fulani dominated Northern Region, the Action Group (AG) - represented the Yoruba dominated Western Region and the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) - represented the Igbo dominated Eastern Region. There were other parties that represented the interests of minority ethnic groups in the country such as Bornu Youth Movement, United Middle Belt Congress etc.
The agenda of these parties were to advance the causes and interests of their ethnic nationalities. capturing control of the government was therefore necessary or useful as it was a means of using that control of the government to do for their ethnic nationalities what the British were doing for themselves. The point here is that the philosophy of the government put in place by the British was to keep control of the territory called Nigeria and exploit its resources for the benefit of the British. The politics of independence was therefore driven by this philosophy - to seize control of the government and correspondingly control the resources of the territory called Nigeria and exploit it for the benefit of the ethnic nationality of the party in power. Seizing control of government was therefore largely seen as conquest of the other ethnic nationalities by the ethnic nationality that dominated or controlled the government.
This perception of government has prevailed all through the politics of Nigeria. It informed and drove the political conflicts of the first Republic leading up to the military coup and counter - coup of 1966. When the military seized control of government from the civilians it further accentuated this perception of government as being alien from the people.
The military governments were of course largely dictatorial and restrictive of the peoples’ rights. Under the military, government was captured by a new ruling elite who used the machinery of government to further their interests and perpetuate themselves in power much like the colonialists. The differences in ethnicity became the pawn in the arsenal of the new ruling elite to manipulate the people so as to keep themselves in power. The ordinary Nigerian felt further alienated from government and viewed the military in power as their new conquerors who had taken over from the British.
The point being made is that historically and to this day, the system of government as we have it in Nigeria is not expressive of the free will, consent and interests of the peoples of Nigeria and so to the various peoples, government is still an alien phenomenon, which if you are fortunate to capture control of, you can use to benefit yourself, your family, your ethnic group and your friends! This is the reason why politics is such a deadly venture in our climes! People see politics as the means by which to control governmental power and resources for personal, ethnic and fraternal self- interests and aggrandizement and so many people are prepared to kill and be killed for it! It is not about service. Most people see government as the quickest means to wealth and power.
Under the current democracy, the Nigerian Constitution which established the current system of government is a creation of the military, which they imposed on the civilian political class. It lacks the autochthonous character which can confer upon it that intrinsic legitimacy that can inspire confidence in the Nigerian people that the government belongs to them and that it exists to serve and advance their interests. Because of this fundamental deficiency, the current system of government though democratic is not able to address the deficit of national spirit in Nigerian national life.
I reiterate again that to create and inspire a national spirit we must conceive and build a country with a government that is the product of the free will and consent of the peoples of Nigeria and whose purpose and objective is to foster, protect and advance the aspirations of all the ethnic nationalities and people that consist in the Nigerian nation. I believe that “Nigeria” must be “founded” again not by the British or European colonial masters but by the ethnic nationalities that consist in Nigeria and this new “Nigeria” must have a government and a system of laws that is designed to meet the aspirations or further the interests of the ethnic nationalities that founded it (as opposed to how government was designed by the colonial masters to further their own interests). It is only in this way that the ethnic nationalities and peoples of Nigeria will take ownership of Nigeria and cease to see government as an alien institution which must be raped and exploited!
When a very proud Yoruba man or Ijaw man or Igbo man or Kanuri man or a Hausa/Fulani man sees government as something which he created and put in place to promote or advance the interests of the Yoruba, the Ijaw, the Igbo, the Hausa/Fulani, the Kanuri etc., he will give his life to protect the government! If the country is recreated in this way, government can become an object of common interest among the ethnic nationalities and this object of common interest will be the inspiration for a Nigerian “national spirit.”
Usani is former Special Adviser and member of the Cross River State Executive Council during the administration of Senator Liyel Imoke.