Will Nigeria disintegrate? By Chido Onumah

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, will on Monday, March 17, 2014, inaugurate the 492-member National Conference whose task is to redefine “the way forward for our nation”. The initial antipathy to the conference, it seems, has given way to cautious optimism.

Of course, there are still people who do not see the opportunity this conference offers. And on the other side, those opposed to the conference because it was convoked by the Jonathan administration. Their grouse is two-pronged: they do not “trust” President Jonathan; and then there is the other matter of a presidential election due early next year.

I understand the concern about the general elections of 2015. If we dismiss those hankering after election because of selfish reasons, the reality is that – for those who genuinely believe in changing Nigeria – nobody can “fix” Nigeria the way it is presently structured.

Our concern, therefore, should go deeper. We can’t, for example, be fixated on an election – knowing that President Jonathan appointed the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC – and at the same time dismiss the “Jonathan National Conference”.

For those who can’t see the forest for the trees, this conference can’t be about President Goodluck Jonathan. Whether called by President Jonathan or not, a national conference to negotiate Nigeria has always been a historical imperative. Luckily, we are going to sit down to talk not because the country has descended into a full-blown civil war.

Make no mistake, this conference is not the cure-all for our problems; just as a Sovereign National Conference is not a silver bullet. Of course, nobody (not even the organisers) can say for certain how this conference is going to end. Nobody goes into a conference of this nature – with a surfeit of tension, anger and bitterness – knowing for certain how it is going to turn out. It may well signal the beginning of the end of what is today known as Nigeria.

Personally, I think in the year of our centenary, when the crisis of identity and nationhood is at its zenith, nothing can be more comforting, even rewarding, than a “peaceful” gathering of the “nationalities” and other stakeholders in Nigeria. It seems the logical thing to do when a country finds itself on the brink.

This conference offers us a great opportunity. Perhaps, it will help us come to the realization that “Nation-building,” as Chidi Odinkalu noted in the preface to the book, Nigeria is Negotiable, “is not a project for the faint-hearted or for those with a short memory.” It may also show that Nigeria was not meant to be.

Not many countries have a second, much less a third or fourth chance to get it right. After 100 years, it is time we stopped seeing ourselves as Yorubas, Igbos, Hausas, Ijaws, Efiks, Ibibios, Fulanis, Tivs and everything in between. It is time we began seeing ourselves as Nigerians.

Nigeria has been run as a unitary state since 1966. Clearly, it has had its debilitating effect; but it has also served, to a great extent, in blurring the country’s ethnic fault line while exacerbating the contradiction between social classes. What we have seen is the emergence of “civic nationalities” in places where “ethnic nationalities” once thrived. For example, in the last four decades, the wealth of the Niger Delta has been used to “develop” different parts of the country and has also enriched individuals stupendously across the length and breadth of the country.

I am a Nigerian first and foremost. My birth in this geo-political space should confer on me that identity. I am a Nigerian – unless that geo-political identity changes tomorrow – before I am Igbo or a Christian. My parents are from Imo State in south-east Nigeria. I wasn’t born there. I didn’t grow up there. I live and work in Abuja and I am married to a lovely woman from Ogun State in south-west Nigeria.

Yet, I have to “claim” Imo State because in the crazy world of Nigeria your “state of origin” confers on you certain privileges and opportunities depending on what you are looking for and where you find yourself. I am sure there are millions of Nigerians who share my unease; millions like me who want, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., to live in a Nigeria where citizens will not be judged by their ethnicity, “state of origin” or what religion they profess, but by the content of their character.

That is why we should go to this conference leaving behind our ethno-religious baggage. Agreed that the “building blocks” of Nigeria in 1914 were “ethnic nationalities”, Nigeria of 2014 is no longer the sum total of its “ethnic nationalities”. If we were having this conversation at independence in 1960 perhaps it would have made some sense.

Undoubtedly, ethnic oppression exits in Nigeria. After 100 years of amalgamation, almost 54 years after independence, 44 years after an internecine civil war that cost more than three million lives to “keep Nigeria one”, it is time to break that oppression and forge a new, united and prosperous nation.

The National Conference, therefore, should not be a forum for the ventilation of narrow-minded religious, ethnic or tribal agenda. The social and economic realities make such an agenda futile. On the contrary, it should be an opportunity to focus on why with billions of Naira accruing to the federal government every year, millions of our people live in extreme poverty, why millions can’t enjoy basic health service, why millions of school age children are not in school and those fortunate to be in school are victims of murderous fiends.

Of course, there is the troubling issue of those coming to the conference with the notion that Nigeria – or better still, parts of it – is there for the taking; and on the opposite side, those who think the country is just perfect the way it is and, therefore, does not require fundamental restructuring. If we isolate these fringe groups, clearly there seems to be a general understanding, if not agreement, that we want to live together as one country. The issue then is how to define the terms of our living together. That definition is central to any plan to reshape or redefine the new Nigeria we envisage.

One thing is certain: the so-called ethnic homogeneity in Nigeria today is a ruse. Our thieving and utterly hopeless ruling class, whether from the east, west, north or south, who are united by their greed and corruption have shown us that it is possible to put behind us our so-called ethnic and religious differences and forge a common identity; a nation united, not by greed and corruption but by justice, equity and egalitarianism.

Will Nigeria survive? It depends on who you ask. Of course, the world will not come to an end if Nigeria disintegrates. Do we need to re-examine the way we live? In other words, is Nigeria negotiable? The answer, of course, is yes. The future of Nigeria depends ultimately on what Nigerians want!

What the national conference should focus on basically is the erection of federalism in its genuine sense as a contradistinction to its parody that exists today. Of course, the natural off-shoot of this evolvement is the decentralization of power. Furthermore, the conference should look at how we generate and distribute wealth and redefine the meaning of citizenship.

Let constituent states manage their internal affairs, control their resources and generate their own wealth; let them decide the internal structure of governance – how many local government areas they want – and operate their own police alongside the federal police. Let every Nigerian be free to reside in and “claim” any state they want as long as they fulfill citizenship obligations.

While we may not have a common “origin”, we can still build a common future. While Nigeria was “forced” on us, we can emerge from the shackles and build a new nation with new national ethos. But it all depends on whether we are willing to do the right thing.

Nigeria is not the only country that was “created” by the British for economic and imperialistic reasons. Ghana, in West Africa, and Canada, in North America, are two examples. But both countries, the challenges of diverse ethnicities and multiculturalism notwithstanding, are functional states. We can attest to what Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana, did to unify the country from 1957 when it gained independence.

In the case of Canada, according to Mary Vipond, the country “was created (by the British) in 1867 as a political and economic entity for pragmatic and imperial rather than nationalist reasons. Only after the formation of the Canadian state out of several different colonies was the attempt to create a Canadian nation begun. One of the principal means by which national unity was promoted was by the construction of networks of communication, beginning with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).”

Today, we have the choice and opportunity to begin the process of building the Nigerian nation. We may be 54, or even 100 years late, but we can make it happen.

I hope those who will represent various “nationalities” and interest groups in Nigeria at the National Conference will be open-minded, conscious of the fact that too many of our compatriots – including the 60 students murdered in their hostel in Yobe State a few weeks ago – have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the process of nation-building.

Conumah@hotmail.com; Follow me on Twitter @conumah

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