This piece was inspired by a robust telephone conversation I had with someone who claimed to be an “avid reader of my column”. He was concerned that I might be “over flogging” the issue of nation building as the panacea to the country’s numerous challenges. We went toe-to-toe on what I consider several manifestations of the crises in the country’s nation-building – from the use of such misnomers as Yoruba nation/race, Igbo nation/race, the North (as if it is a separate country) to a number of insurgency and separatist groups in the country. While my new friend brought new insights, I was not persuaded that the fundamental problem of the country is not our inability to create an “imagined community” from the mosaic of nationalities that make up the country. This failure in turn has meant that we do not have enough true Nigerians to populate the geographical expression called Nigeria, leading to a host of other challenges. Let me amplify this point:
In a very well-received public lecture at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Pretoria, South Africa, on February 2 2012 entitled ‘Boko Haram as a symptom of the crisis in Nigeria’s nation-building’, I reviewed a number of the putative theories for explaining the Boko Haram phenomenon – the poverty argument, the historical explanation, frustration-aggression hypothesis, the poor governance argument etc. and rejected them all as being at best half-truths. My basic argument then (as of now) was that Boko Haram was a symptom of the crisis in our nation-building process. As I explained:
“Virtually every part of Nigeria claims it is ‘marginalized’ and there are concomitant groups calling for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (a euphemism for a meeting to discuss whether Nigerians want to continue to live together as one country or not)…
“Personally I believe that a major reason for this [Boko Haram] is the crisis in our nation-building project, which feeds into the crisis of underdevelopment to create an existential crisis for many Nigerians. For many young people, a way of resolving the consequent sense of alienation is to retreat from the Nigeria project and construct meanings in chosen primordial identities - often with the Nigerian state as the enemy. In this sense actions we rightly see as heinous are normal, even heroic, to them.
“In Nigeria, there is a heavy burden of institutionalized sectional memories of hurt, injustice, distrust and even a disguised longing for vengeance. This means therefore that any strategy to confront the security challenge in the country is bound to evoke these ugly memories in some sections of the population. No individual or political authority enjoys universal legitimacy across the main fault lines. Nigeria is therefore a country in desperate need of creating Nigerians….
“If this trend continues, we risk having Nigeria without Nigerians as everyone seems to carry out an attack on the Nigerian state using whatever means at the person’s disposal – those entrusted with the nation’s common patrimony steal it blind, law enforcement officers turn the other way if you offer them a little inducement, organized labor, including university lecturers go on prolonged strikes on a whim, students resort to cultism and exam malpractices and workers drag their feet, refuse to put in their best and engage in moonlighting. Everyone has one form of grouse or the other against the Nigerian state and its institutions.”
In 2014 I further elaborated on the above in a three-part article for Brookings Institution on Boko Haram – ‘Explaining the Emergence of Boko Haram’, ‘Possible Trajectories of the Boko Haram Conflict in Nigeria’ and ‘Boko Haram: The Way Forward’. These were excerpted from a one-year consultancy for the Washington-based institution on the political context of conflicts in Nigeria. The first of the series set a record of having the highest number of hits at the Africa Growth Initiative’s section of Brookings website- a record I am not sure has been broken. In the Brookings series, I used the notion of ‘de-Nigerianization’ to refer to the tendency by Nigerians who feel alienated from the state to delink from the state and its institution and to regard it as an enemy.
It will seem that what we have mostly in this country are ‘situational Nigerians’. When circumstances favour their in-group, they become ‘ultrapatriotic’ and accuse everyone else complaining of ethnicity, bigotry or of being driven by sentiments. However once there is a reversal of fortune they roll out war drums with attendant threats of secession. Among the different regions and ethnic groups, it is a game of musical chairs.
There are three issues I believe are germane from the above:
One, as a leader, if you do not focus on creating a nation, your policies, no matter how well-intentioned, are likely to be perceived as a failure by sections of the country because people have different markers and lenses for filtering reality. This means that virtually everything about a regime in such a polarized environment is subjective, including on whether a regime has performed well or not. Is there a regime or political leader that has not been demonized by sections of the country since the onset of this Fourth Republic? Is there a section of the country that has not, threatened secession –either directly or through such euphemisms as ‘resource control’ or ‘sovereign national conference’?
Two, everyone agrees that a country needs effective institutions to help routinize law observance. Institutions however have to be built by people. But how can you do it in a fractious society where people will pigeonhole and read bias in every action you take? This is why I have argued that unless a nation is built, solutions you throw at the country’s problems – end up becoming part of the problem because it goes into the institutional memories of some sections of the country as another instance of injustice against them.
Three, everyone accepts that effective leadership is indispensable in both nation building and the development of the country. But how can such a leader emerge and enjoy legitimacy across the fault lines when the person’s ethnic and religious identities already make him a suspect?
The above convince me that we need to have a nation first – or at least consciously make efforts to restart the stalled nation-building process before any solution we throw at our numerous problems can bear fruit.
Where do we go from here?
Missing in the policy options of Nigerian presidents since 1999 are explicit strategies of how to further the nation-building process or even recognition that the crisis in the country’s nation building is a fundamental problem facing the country. I will propose the following
National Integration and Orientation Agency
The current National Orientation Agency should be strengthened and placed in the Presidency. It is not enough to try to mobilize people to be patriotic – when such people are angry and feel alienated from the state. The agency should have measures for understanding why some Nigerians and groups are de-Nigerianizing and work in concert with relevant agencies, to engage such groups. The agency should coordinate the various measures taken so far to build unity in diversity in the country – the country’s federalism, unity schools and NYSC, the federal character principle and Federal Character Commission –to ensure they fit into a regime’s nation-building narrative.
Ad hoc peace committees
No matter how radical or rascally someone is, there is always someone that the person can listen to. I am a big believer in using informal channels to achieve certain formal goals. Therefore I will propose setting up informal committees of respected individuals at the National, State and Local Government levels who can always be called upon to mediate in brewing conflicts, especially ones with national significance. Such committees may for instance be asked to persuade a rabble-rouser or some de-Nigerianized (or de-Nigerianizing) groups to tone down their divisive rhetoric or embark on moves that could build amity across the fault lines. Essentially, the peace committees shall mediate between the ‘de-Nigerianized’ (and ‘de-Nigerianizing’) Nigerians and the state.
Making the Federal Character Commission independent along the lines of INEC
The symbolisms and psychological satisfaction that ‘one’s own’ is part of the leadership structure of the country is salutary to both development and the nation-building process.
This is why you have ethnic, religious and regional entrepreneurs who will analyse our politics through the periscopes of ethnic, religious and regional categories. Objectifying ‘merit’ or ‘competence’ in a highly polarized environment like ours is often a subjective enterprise that depends largely on one’s filters, frames and markers. The FCC should be made independent along the lines of INEC and should be encouraged to be on the driving seat of the effort to rebuild faith in the Nigeria project. Through its activities and boldness the Commission could embed itself in the consciousness of Nigerians as an impartial arbiter in the distribution of jobs and infrastructure among the various components of the federation. An invigorated FCC will help to remove that cloud of suspicion that has enveloped every regime in this country since 1999, especially if it becomes a requirement that the agency’s imprimatur should be a requirement for the National Assembly approving appointments by the President or approving capital budget.
Review previous nation-building measures
Several measures but in place in the past to further the cause of building unity in diversity in the country – the country’s federalism, NYSC, Unity schools, creation of states and local governments – need urgent review to ensure they are still optimally contributing to the objective of nation-building.
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