How to be a Nigerian, By Jean Herskovits

Joseph Nanven Garba was born on July 17th, 1943 and died ten years ago, on June 1, 2002.  He was a soldier, a diplomat, and a remarkable human being; but, above all, he was a patriot.  He believed in Nigeria, though Nigeria often disappointed him.  He believed in Nigerians and their future; though they, too, often disappointed him. Were he here with us, I am sure he would be beyond disappointed; he would be angry. 

You may wonder how someone who looks and sounds like me can presume to speak about “How to be a Nigerian.”  I can only tell you that, in one of the nicest compliments I have ever been paid, I was regularly introduced by Joe Garba as “This is Jean Herskovits, a well-disguised Nigerian.”  I cannot promise to be as verbose as Peter Enahoro’s satirical characterization of Nigerian oratory, nor to make creative use of proverbs.  And although I know full well that I am not a Nigerian but simply a frequent guest here, I will tell you that my concern for Nigeria, its people, and their future goes very deep.  Joe Garba had, and still has, no small influence on those feelings.

Today, you will hear a lot about his accomplishments, and in Joe Garba’s Legacy, the volume to be presented shortly, you may read in some of his own words his views on subjects that were central to his thinking.  None mattered more to him than this country fulfilling its by-now clichéd potential, and he well knew how much that depended on Nigerians and their commitment to its future.

That the pride in being Nigerian has diminished is, sadly, inescapable now.   The national identity is frayed.  Some people even talk and write openly about breaking up Nigeria–this in a country that experienced the tragedy of civil war.[2]

As a historian, and one privileged to have watched Nigeria closely since just before its independence, I will look briefly at Nigerianness over the years.  To speak only about the present would be to do what Joe Garba deplored—ignoring history.  As every student of history knows, however, you can use, or misuse, it to make whatever case you choose. We see too much of that now.  But what I will do is put Nigeria’s experience into a larger historical and geographical context, and draw some implications for thinking about the Nigerian future that Joe Garba believed in and many here today share.

As you well know, Nigeria’s myriad people date their history from long before it existed as a country.  Nigeria itself is nearly 100 years old or just over fifty, depending on how you count.  Some people make much of its artificial creation.  Years ago Chief Obafemi Awolowo described Nigeria as a mere geographical expression.  I would argue that such statements make a political point, but are historically irrelevant.

 Many, if not most, of the world’s nations evolved over time, with fluid boundaries, through war and conquest, even disappearing and reappearing at various times (Poland comes to mind).  Sometimes geography shapes boundaries, but rarely in an uncomplicated way.  Note, for instance, the history of Great Britain, encompassing England, Scotland, Wales, or of the United States, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. 

Empires, of course, proclaimed countries and drew boundaries in places they little understood.  Britain in south Asia is one example; the Scramble for Africa that led to delineating Nigeria is obviously another.  Other empires drew together places with diverse histories and cultures with varying success: the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires; the Soviet Union later.  There were many others.  I suspect that, without European intrusion, southern Africa could have been consolidated under a Zulu empire (the Zulu always fascinated Joe Garba).

 So to my mind, what matters is not how there came to be an entity called Nigeria, but rather that such a country has existed throughout the lifetimes of all of us.  During that time, sinews have grown binding its people together, no matter how much they complain about it or point to what divides them.

I don’t know when people started calling themselves Nigerian, but use of the name began in Lagos, notably with the founding in 1923, by Herbert Macaulay, of the Nigerian National Democratic Party.   Its focus was Lagos, with broader Nigeria scarcely figuring in the politics of the day.   Macaulay and others to come were more concerned with Lagos and Anglophone West Africa than with Nigeria.

A broader Nigerian identification came with students who were studying abroad.  Their numbers were few as World War II approached; even by 1945 there were only some 150 in England and fewer than a dozen in the U.S., and they were all from southern parts of the country.  That war spurred the rise of African nationalism and its later demands for national self-determination—not least among Nigerian soldiers, all of them northerners, and, among them, Joe Garba’s father, fighting with the British in Burma.

Meanwhile, Nigerians studying overseas had become politically active and vocal.  In 1941 the London-based West African Students Union (WASU) sent a resolution to the British governor of Nigeria asking for, among other things,


           …a United Nigeria with a Federal Constitution based on a Swiss

            or USA model with necessary modifications. … Local tribal loyalty

            [should] be gradually transcended, submerged, and suppressed

            by the creation and development of Nigerian National Loyalty.[3]

However naïve that now sounds, it expressed a genuine vision, illuminating not only for our topic today but also for its constitutional foresight.

I suspect that as the numbers of Nigerian students abroad increased, the sense of being Nigerian did too.  By the late 1950s, in Oxford or London, if you asked a Nigerian where he (it usually was he) was from, he’d answer “Nigeria,” and would resist being pressed for more specifics.  In the United States by 1960 “Nigeria” would be the answer, delivered with near-aggressive emphasis that closed off probing further. 

1966 changed that for some.  In July that year I was in Atlanta, Georgia, as an instructor in a Peace Corps training program for volunteers heading to Nigeria’s Eastern Region.  My assignment was Nigerian history; my fellow Nigerian instructors were Igbo language teachers.  They and I felt some distance from the other Americans on the staff, including a few who had already been in the Peace Corps in Nigeria.  We talked endlessly about what was happening “at home.”  That’s how I knew that on July 28th they were building in their minds a Nigerian future.  On July 29th, they wavered, and by the next day, for them, a Nigerian future had disappeared.

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