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Nigeria's Unavoidable Future By Prof. Banji Akintoye

January 29, 2015

The future of Nigeria is locked in one unavoidable reality: change or perish.

“Nigeria is trapped in the web of the malady of an uncompleted decolonization process."—Alfred Ilenre, Secretary-General, Ethnic Minority and Indigenous Rights Organization of Africa (EMIROAF)

Every country has its inner, intrinsic structure. A country that is made up of one nationality (a people with their own homeland, culture, language, etc) is different from another country in which many different nationalities are combined. To exist in reasonable harmony, a country’s man-made structure (that is, its constitutional structure) must harmonize as much as possible with its intrinsic structure. When the leaders and rulers of a country organize their country in ways that are manifestly and defiantly disharmonious with their country’s intrinsic structure, they condemn their country to instability, discord, conflicts, and probably disintegration. 

Nigerian schoolchildren

The refusal of most Black African countries to respect this wisdom is the principal reason why almost all Black African countries have been experiencing instability, conflicts and violence since independence. European empire builders came in about 1900, each grabbed some expanse of African territory, ignored the African nationalities that inhabited each such territory, and called it a new country – with one name and one government. For the next forty years or so, the colonial rulers were so busy trying to make profit from their venture, and they were so distracted by big troubles (two World Wars and a Great Depression) in their own continent, that they could not pay serious attention to issues such as appropriate constitutional structure for their African territories. In the course of the 1960s, under pressure from Africans who wanted colonialism to end, and from a world that was becoming hostile to imperialism, the European colonialists hurriedly cooked up some sort of leadership for their African possessions and left. That is the basic story of every Black African country until independence. 

At that point of independence, a great task fell on the shoulders of the new African leaders of each of these countries – the task to organize their country properly and give it a chance to be stable and peaceful – so as to be able to develop. The core of this task was that the new rulers should ensure that each nationality in their new country (no matter how small) would be respected, and feel comfortably and proudly belonging, in the country. In every country made up of many different nationalities and given only one central government by the colonialists, it was necessary to restructure by creating constitutions allowing the various nationalities to have some freedom to manage some important parts of their own affairs. That means we Black Africans should have chosen some sort of federal structures for most of our countries after independence.  

Unfortunately, in not a single one of our Black Africa’s multi-nation countries did the leaders even ask what needed to be done in this all-important matter of living together as one country. Just a few examples will do. In Black Africa’s first independent country, Ghana, the various nationalities asked at independence to be allowed to manage some of their own affairs locally. A constitution of that nature was easily possible.  But the first ruler the new country, and the great hero of Africa, Dr. Nkrumah, thought that their requests were dangerous to the unity of Ghana, and he launched a political fight aimed at stamping them down. That led to crises and big troubles – all of which could have been avoided. These troubles destabilized Ghana and (reinforced by economic troubles) ultimately destroyed the great hero.  

In nearly every one of our other countries, the leaders simply assumed too that their countries were already finished products as organized by the colonial rulers, and that all they needed to do was to make their governments strong and capable of stamping down any show of freedom by any of the component nationalities. And the results since then in country after country have been conflicts, military coups and barbaric military dictatorships, mind-boggling corruption, pogroms, efforts at ethnic cleansing or even genocide. 

South Sudan is our youngest country in Black Africa. After decades of brutal sacrifices in bush wars, South Sudan, comprising about 40 different nationalities, wrenched itself free from Arab-controlled Sudan and became an independent country in July 2011. Even before the day of independence, many leaders of the different nationalities had started to ask that the nationalities should be given some freedom to manage much of their affairs locally and that the central legislature should be “the voice of the nationalities”.  We were all very happy when the leader of the independence war, our brother Salva Kiir, as president of the new country, said during the independence celebrations that South Sudan would be a country “where cultural and ethnic diversity will be a source of pride”. Very many Black Africans (including this writer) rushed letters to the leaders of South Sudan congratulating them and begging them to be mindful of the fact that their country was a county of many different nationalities – and to avoid the mistake that other Black African countries had been making. Sadly, it has not worked. President Kiir soon rejected all advice about a federal structure or decentralization. His Vice-President and many others (belonging to nationalities different from his), reacting to some actions of his, accused him of aspiring to a dictatorship. The nationalities plunged into conflicts – and have been engrossed in mutual killings since then. International observers on the spot are now reporting that more than 50,000 (some say close to 100,000) have been killed – and the killings are still continuing.  

It is the same pattern as this in almost all our countries – with all sorts of variations of detail. The Nigerian story is easily the most bizarre and most painful of all. Nigeria is the Black African country with the greatest promise of prosperity and greatness –the home of about one-fourth of all Black Africans, one of  the most literate populations at independence, and the land of enormous natural resources (including some of the richest crude oil and gas deposits on earth). To protect their economic interests in this naturally rich country after it would have become independent, the British colonialists sought to hand Nigeria, at independence, to “a friendly people”. Fearing the highly-educated Yoruba and Igbo of the South, they maneuvered the constitution, the population census, the politics and the elections, and thus placed Nigeria’s federal power in the hands of the much weaker Hausa-Fulani Muslim elite of the North. They also established for the new overlords of Nigeria the direction by which they would be able to use their control of federal power to widen their dominance and to keep their control going indefinitely.  

But all of those were the acts of British foreigners fending for their own Britain’s interests. The duty of Nigerians was obvious and different – it was to make Nigeria successful. Unhappily, the enthroned group chose not to work for the success and greatness of Nigeria. They chose to use their federal power to entrench their sectional control eternally – in the Nigerian military, in the Nigerian federal civil service, over the states of the federation, to convert federal agencies (courts, electoral commission, police, etc) into their tools, to use federal money to corrupt, emasculate, and enslave prominent citizens, and to resist any attempt at evolving a true federal system. Even when some Southerners (Obasanjo and Jonathan) have been allowed to sit on top of the system, they have been too enticed by its limitless power and control of money to make any important and decisive change. 

However, judging from the way Nigeria is now tottering fearfully, the rejection of the system has now gathered irresistible power and momentum. This could turn the coming presidential election into a chaotic brawl that could put an end to the agonizing marriage of the various peoples of Nigeria. 

But even if any candidate does manage to win and be accepted as president, but then refuses to lead Nigeria in the direction of re-ordering the constitutional structure of Nigeria, the crisis situation will almost certainly return quickly – and what a lot of young people are calling “completion of decolonization” for their various peoples will very likely happen, one way or other. The future of Nigeria is locked in one unavoidable reality: change or perish.