Tomorrow, Thursday, August 19, Premium Times Books in conjunction with the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) will be presenting a new book titled Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices at the Yar ‘Adua Centre, Abuja. Edited by Chido Onumah, a rights activist and the Coordinator of the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), this is a 437-page book and collection of 60 essays by 60 young Nigerians to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence.
In this interview, the book editor, Onumah speaks with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ololade Bamidele on the raison d’etre for the publication of this collection, while engaging with the disconcerting trajectory that Nigeria finds itself in at this point in its evolution, 61 years after independence.
PT: What inspired you to put this book together?
ONUMAH: The inspiration came from over many years of worrying about the Nigerian tragedy. Nigeria just breaks one’s heart. Where do we start? Education, health, corruption, inequality, injustice, mindless violence, abuse of power, just name it. We have managed to perfect the art of dysfunctionality.
PT: This is about your fourth book project, all returning to the subject of Nigeria and the various questions around it; how come it appears that you believe so much in books as potent tools for creating solutions and hence striving towards change from the persistent national malaise? This is more so when you put this within the frame of what many see as the challenges of a reading culture in Nigeria? Can books ever offer a virile platform for social activism/change in Nigeria?
ONUMAH: Well, there is no other way to go about it. Documenting or chronicling our history is fundamental and important for many reasons. My focus is on the younger generation, those we accuse of not being interested in books or reading. There are many things that happen in this country that Nigerians should know but which are only discussed in beer parlours and the comfort of our bedrooms; things that border on our collective survival as a people. Knowledge is power, they say. It is when you know, when you have the requisite information that you know that things are not going the way they should—or that there are better ways of doing things—that you can act.
Books can offer a virile platform for social activism. This week, former military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, turned 80. He and his cronies have spent the last few weeks trying to rewrite history and whitewash Babangida and his regime. For those who did not live through the Babangida era, you would think the man was a saint. But it is important that we never forget and for the younger generation to appreciate that learning comes through books and reading. And there are many books out there, including one of mine titled, Nigeria is Negotiable, that provide an insight into how Babangida misruled Nigeria for eight years and set us on the precipitous path we have found ourselves as a nation.
PT: Related to the foregoing is the question of a country with a very difficult publishing and books environment; what was your journey like in getting this project to fruition, and what roles did particular individuals and institutional actors, like development agencies, play in making this book possible?
ONUMAH: It is a shame that many of the books you see in our bookshops are printed abroad. It is a lot cheaper to print outside the country. Then there is the issue of quality. There are some quality presses in Nigeria, but because of the crisis of poor infrastructure—electricity, the bureaucracy and high cost of doing business, etc.—you can’t get anything done unless you are willing to pay about three or four times what it will cost to print in Dubai, the U.S. or China.
The idea of this book first came up eleven years ago when Nigeria was about to celebrate its 50th independence anniversary. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t get much traction then because it was tough getting people to commit to the process and there was the challenge of funds to produce the book. Something like this requires a lot of resources—printing the book, doing the research and so on. Thankfully, this time around, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and Ford Foundation responded positively when I discussed the idea with them. It was through their support that we were able to get this done. Of course, I have to pay homage to the 60 contributors to the book. Without their essays there would be no book. Remember this was done last year when the whole world was on lockdown and there were travel restrictions and people had to deal with different health and social issues. I am happy we managed to get this done. I would like to thank our publishers, PT Books, for their tireless efforts in ensuring we finally have a good quality book.
PT: Was there a particular methodology informing the different voices brought together to think Nigeria in this compendium? There also seems to be a preponderance of male voices overall – was this deliberate?
ONUMAH: The aim was to have young and fresh voices. So, we decided on post-civil war Nigerians who are 50 years and younger. Even though many of them are known and contribute regularly to national conversation, we wanted to ensure that their views get national attention in a focused and organised manner. Of course, in selecting contributors, we needed to reflect the country’s diversity. We also had to ensure gender balance. Beyond this, we had to ensure that we got contributors with an understanding of the concept of the project. Unfortunately, because of challenge created by COVID-19, not all of those we initially reached out to were able to make it and a lot of people in that group were female contributors. Sadly, we didn’t get the gender balance we wanted. But it was not for lack of trying. Overall, we are happy about the quality of the book. We hope it will be well received by the public.
PT: You had once deployed a metaphorical phrase in which you stated that, ‘We are all Biafrans’; could this be your own unique take on what constitutes a Nigerian identity, a continuum of marginalisation and discontent, even if it is not as positive an experience as one would have wished?
ONUMAH: In a way, this may be a corollary to ‘We are all Biafrans.’ Call it we are all Nigerians. I have always believed that the fundamental issue in Nigeria is the issue of identity. Who is a Nigerian? What does it mean to be a Nigerian? There are millions of Nigerians who have bitter experiences when it comes to answering these questions. There are millions who see themselves as second-class citizens, those who feel they can’t enjoy the full potentials of what this country has to offer because of their religion or ethnicity. That’s the challenge. If we can resolve the citizenship crisis, we would have solved half of our problems. We must have a country where citizens believe that their opportunities are only limited by their desires and abilities, rather than where they come from or the language they speak. This is what Remaking Nigeria is all about.
PT: You have reiterated the notion of Nigeria’s “third missionary” journey towards a truly democratic nation; what informs this sense of period delineation towards nationhood? Do you think Nigerian nationhood is attainable, despite all the centrifugal forces threatening to render all attempts at a concert apart?
ONUMAH: Nigeria has had many opportunities to fulfil its role as a giant on the African continent. At independence, the world looked at us as the great black hope, the country to redeem the black race. Unfortunately, 60 years after, that hope remains a mirage. Part of the problem is the crisis of nationhood. Six years after independence, there were two bloody coups and a civil war the year after. At the end of the civil war in January 1970, we declared “no victor, no vanquished.” Fifty-one years after, there are millions of “Nigerians” for whom the cheque of “no victor, no vanquished” is nothing but a dud cheque. The country is more divided today than it has ever been, twenty-one years into our latest attempt at democratic rule. At no other time in the history of the country have we had this level of disenchantment about the country. And the feeling spreads across and is yielding grounds to a growing band of armed critiques and agitations for self-determination from different groups.
PT: Many have spoken passionately about the very peculiar sort of federalism operative in Nigeria, which has led to numerous feelings of disenchantment, leading to calls for restructuring and self-determination, whether in terms of having more space within the country-construct or the radical decision for separation; how do you see this?
ONUMAH: The feeling of disenchantment is inevitable. Of course, the situation has been exacerbated by the dwindling resources and the corruption of our greedy and perverse elite, but it is also a measure of our inability to forge a nation out of what the colonialists handed over to us in 1960. At independence, we needed to build a new Nigeria, to recreate Nigeria in the image of citizens of the country, but that didn’t happen. Nigeria is a peculiar country, and its problems are in a way peculiar. We are about the only country in the world where the adherents of the two main religions are at par in terms of numbers. We are the only country in the world with three major groups. In many countries, you have one or two. Nigeria could have been three or four nations at independence. The country got independence as a federation of three regions in 1960. Many years of military rule succeeded in destroying the original structure of the country so much so that the states which ought to be the successor of the regions that were the building blocks of the country have lost their power and independence. The chicks have come home to roost. The destruction of the principle of federalism, the mismanagement of our diversity, injustice and so on can only have one consequence. I hope we can survive the current onslaught.
PT: Linked to its structural manifestation, what do you consider as the other persistent social issues confronting Nigeria at this juncture, and what notion of resolution do you subscribe to, considering the declaration of the remaking of Nigeria in the title of your latest book – that of dialogue, then constitutional reform, leading to a new social contract? Why do you think separatism is an attractive option to many at this point in our evolution as a country?
ONUMAH: There is nothing we are facing today as a country that other countries haven’t faced or are not facing. It depends on what lessons we want to learn from our tragedies and bitter experiences. Nigeria is not the first or only country to fight a civil war. Rwanda rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a genocide and today it is a poster child of what it means to build a nation. Are we willing to take the first step? Are we willing to ask and answer the hard questions of nationhood? It was the late legal icon, Chief Bola Ige, who posed the questions: “Do we want to live together as Nigerians? If the answer is yes, under what conditions?” These questions are as important today as they were decades ago. I believe many Nigerians want to live together as Nigerians. The agitations you see across the country is our failure to address the second part of Chief Ige’s question: Under what conditions? We need to define what it means to be a Nigerian. We must address the elephant in the room, the question of citizenship rights.
PT: Do you think that Nigeria would ultimately be a viable project?
ONUMAH: I think so. My faith rests in the country’s youth population. Say what we want about them, they are the ones who hold the key to the country’s salvation. They must learn and figure out how to fashion the kind of country they want; one that works for the majority of Nigerians. The #EndSARS protests last October showed us what a group of dedicated young people can achieve. It can only get better.
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