The current issue of the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine features the debate, “Is Nigeria well on its way to being a failed state?” When contacted to argue the “aye,” my willingness to do so belied my own “prickly nationalism,” a condition that afflicts almost every fellow citizen I know. But the contrary view that sees Nigeria “far from being a failed state” was argued by my far more optimistic co-debater.

Events of the last few weeks, headlined by the controversy over the relocation of the proposed University of Petroleum Technology from Effurun-Warri to Kaduna and Boko Haram’s bloody jihad for illiteracy have heightened the failed state debate. Concerning the former, President Yar’Adua has sought to reassure the long-suffering people of the Niger Delta and the nation as a whole that nothing is amiss. What will be sited in Kaduna is a College of Petroleum Studies to train, according to Alhaji Rilwanu Lukman, Minister of Petroleum Resources, “senior management personnel who are transiting to general management in NNPC.” And it will be the exclusive privilege of the petroleum university in Warri to continue to train “middle level manpower for the oil and gas industry.” These constitute “the right manpower” that our oil industry needs, according to Lukman, as opposed to the “higher level technical and senior management personnel” universities produce but whom “we don’t need.” President Yar’Adua himself endorsed this curious logic before hurriedly jetting off to Brazil, fleeing the burning streets and corpses that trailed Boko Haram’s mayhem and the incandescent rage of the Niger Delta.

What neither Yar’Adua nor Lukman would admit is that the Kaduna college effectively supplants the Warri university, or that if we follow the logic then the college is a massive waste of scarce (oil) resources. Worse, by this display of naked power, Yar’Adua and Lukman, acting on behalf of the northern oligarchy, stick a finger in the eye of the Niger Delta. It is an act of provocation and belittlement by which power spitefully mocks the expropriated: “Amnesty? What amnesty? Do your worst! We will continue to take your oil and relocate every infrastructure save the very oil wells themselves from the Delta.” Unfortunately, it is “a son of the soil” who articulated the cold calculation behind this ideology of blood-curdling dispossession. In a public lecture given twenty-nine years ago, Chief Philip Asiodu, no stranger to unaccountable power as a former super permanent secretary, paid the customary lip service to the predicament of the Niger Delta then posited thus: “Given, however, the small size and population of the oil-producing area, it is not cynical to observe that even if the resentments ... continue, they cannot threaten nor affect continued economic development.” This view was echoed only two months ago by Bala Ibn N’Allah, honourable member of the House of Representatives, who called for the extermination of the 20 million inhabitants of the Niger Delta. There is only one snag, though. While Asiodu, three decades ago, could not foresee any threat to continued economic development, peaceful and armed insurgencies from MOSOP to MEND have since proved otherwise. What Yar’Adua, Lukman, N’Allah and their small-minded ilk of power-mongers must now devise as the final solution is the relocation of the Niger Delta land from the Atlantic shore to the edge of the Sahara, complete with the necessary population transfers. Nothing else will answer the sworn determination to set the nation ablaze in order to perpetuate the daylight robbery. It is clear to every patriotic Nigerian that the Niger Delta crisis is by now the National Question and tops the reasons why Nigeria seems set on becoming a failed state. I will conclude this piece then with my contribution to the BBC debate.

Most of the indices of failed states declare Nigeria well on its way to joining that disreputable league of nations. For a start, Nigeria boasts a government unable to deliver basic social services; is plagued by corruption so endemic and monumental it is hard to separate it from state policy; lacks the capability or discipline or both to prevent threats to public safety and national integrity; and is assailed by active challenges to its legitimacy.  Besides, what passes for the Nigerian state simply cannot manage to conduct a credible election, whether into a local government seat or the presidency. The latest disaster of a gubernatorial re-run election in Ekiti state, meant to correct the errors of the first, proved an even greater show of shame. While Nigerians, notoriously prickly in their nationalism, may loudly denounce any suggestions from abroad of the imminent disintegration of their country, they nonetheless admit the unflattering truth of its possibility to themselves and each other. The inflammable Niger Delta, for long the booty of successive bands of political pirates and now also a seething swamp of untameable angst, points clearly to the dangerously frayed social fabric.

Anyone who may not have been paying attention and would need “objective” evidence might do worse than consult the Brookings Institution’s Index of State Weakness in which Nigeria ranks 28 out of 141 developing countries. Co-authored by Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s top diplomat at the United Nations, it places the self-styled Giant of Africa in the honoured company of Somalia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As if to assert her unparalleled gift of settling for the worst even when the tolerable is within grasp, Nigeria sits happily in the cut-off position for countries termed “critically weak” as opposed to the merely weak states. But if the Brookings Institution takes a kind view of Nigeria, not so the Fund for Peace in whose 2008 Index of Failed States Nigeria is only two short rungs away from where she might, at the very least, have enjoyed the consolation of dissociation from Somalia and Zimbabwe. The irony is unmistakable that Nigeria has to look up the ladder at Sierra Leone and Liberia, two countries she spared no expense of life, limb and hard currency to bring out of civil wars and restore to democracy.
Yet none of this goes to the heart of the problem. For, to speak of Nigeria as a failed state is, in a sense, to put the cart before the horse. Never having been a nation to start with, the question of a legitimate state to handle her affairs proves redundant. We must, therefore, open the dusty archives for the radical cause of Nigeria’s state of distress. And there we will find that what we have grown accustomed to calling a nation deserving of a state, what we take for granted as a nation-state, is  —  to quote one of her founding fathers  —  “a mere geographical expression.” Nigeria is not a nation, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, with characteristic forthrightness, declared more than a decade before nominal independence from Britain. For saying the unsayable, and for championing constitutional federalism along the lines of Nigeria’s multitude of ethnic groups, Awolowo was labelled a tribalist and unjustly maligned till his death in 1987. But events have more than vindicated him since, not least the spectre of dismemberment raised by the abortive Orkar coup of 1990.

The unwillingness to grapple with the trauma of Nigeria’s stillbirth as a nation is the great political unconscious, the implacable repressed, that returns at will to haunt and mock the state-of-denial. This repressed truth, being political, hides as it were in the open. It can be seen in the headlines and by-lines of the newspapers. It is volubly declaimed in bars and every public forum where two or more Nigerians are gathered. It defines the so-called “national question,” so cacophonous that the prodigious expense of political and psychological energy needed by Nigeria’s self-appointed rulers to repress it produces such frightful spectacles as compel the verdict of a failed or rapidly failing state.
A mere geographical expression. Or, as another “founding father” from the former Northern Protectorate preferred to put it, “the mistake of 1914.” That was the fateful year Lord Lugard merged by colonial fiat northern and southern protectorates and the colony of Lagos to enact Nigeria. The word, unknown to the “tribes and tongues” it purportedly described until colonialism, proclaims the malevolent mapping of imperial design. Meaning simply, people of the (lower) Niger area, it was as if the hallowed river possessed the magic to transform disparate denizens within its acceptable radius into nationhood by mere eponymous naming. This would be deemed superstition in any other context but the colonial. Unfortunately, this mistake has yet to be acknowledged despite repeated and increasingly strident calls for a sovereign national conference or some such other credible conclave of political re-engineering.  For, if nations are imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson has shown in a book of the same title, Nigeria was clearly unimagined by its would-be citizens. And, perhaps, Nigeria is unimaginable for very long in her current state of existence.

Ifowodo may be reached at [email protected]

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