When Nigeria became independent in 1960, it was a state without a nation, observed Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton in “A History of Nigeria.” Fifty-nine years later, this characterization still rings true. Secessionist agitations in the southeast, fears of Islamization, growing talk of Fulanization, the fact an Igbo cannot dream of becoming Governor in a Yoruba-majority state or vice-versa, the idea federal appointments must be “ethnically-balanced” and numerous more examples betray a persistent lack of meaningful national identification. Since 1960, various politicians, generals and intellectuals have tried to talk a Nigerian nationhood into existence. Why have they been so unsuccessful and what is the way forward?
Most successful nation-building projects have had at least one of three factors working in their favour. The first is a common external enemy whose aggressive intentions, real or imagined, served to unite people in fear and a belief the way to survive was by sticking together. It is no coincidence some of the strongest national identities are to be found in Europe, forged by centuries of warfare which united previously ununited groups and fostered the building of efficient state bureaucracies needed both during and between wars.
Today’s richest European country- Germany – did not become a unified nation until 1871 following a victorious war in which previously-independent German-speaking states came together to fight the French. Till today, Russian national unity is often mobilized around the idea Russia has powerful external enemies, chiefly America. During the height of the 1950s Nigerian independence struggle, opposition to the enemy of British colonialism often provided politicians like Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe a theme around which they could unify many Nigerians, but the British factor of course largely disappeared along with their departure in 1960.
A second major factor enabling nation-building is a shared cultural repertoire: a common language, common traditions and values, a general sense of cultural sameness within a population. Japan, for instance, has largely built its national identity around notions of cultural sameness. In fact, in order to maintain the cultural homogeneity of its society, in contrast to other rich countries often seeking cheap foreign labour, Japan has extremely strict immigration rules. Just 1.76% of its 127-million population is foreign-born. Compare this to the UK where 14.4% of the population is foreign-born and we see the diametrical difference in approach to national identity. Obviously, the ethnocultural sameness option is a non-starter in diverse Nigeria.
The only realistic nation-building glue available to Nigeria is a collective success story. If a state is prosperous and strong, its citizens will identify with it because people like being associated with success. America is one example. Despite serious racial, political and cultural divides, even hatreds, within the population, they all still want to be Americans. Because “America” symbolizes success, power and status. What American identity offers its citizens, black, brown or white, is a sense of participation in greatness. Even an American with scant personal achievements can feel a part of this collective success story.
The largest obstacle to Nigerian nation-building is not Nigeria’s diversity, but the non-success of the Nigerian state. Nigerian politicians often suggest “national unity” is a requirement for Nigeria’s success. They have it backwards. It is Nigeria’s success that is the requirement for national unity. This might sound counter-intuitive, but you do not need strong national unity per se to achieve national success. What you need is a functional state that can enable wealth creation and enforce the rule of law. Not only is America arguably more divided than Nigeria is today, it would also be absurd to suggest it enjoyed “national unity” during the 1950s segregationist-era or the turbulent 1960s when the country was torn apart by attitudes to the Vietnam War and a sitting president (JFK) assassinated on live television.Yet even then in the 1950s, even segregated and discriminated-against black people still wanted to be Americans. Not because they felt a “unity” with white America, but because back then too, being an American meant being part of a success story.
The binding power of collective success could also be seen in the 2014 referendum when Scotland was offered the opportunity to be an independent country. Yet, a majority of Scots, clearly a distinct nation of their own, voted to remain part of the UK. Does anyone doubt the Scots would have chosen independence if the UK had been an unsuccessful state? But who no like beta tin? Of course, it’s also no coincidence that German and Japanese national identities are very robust, as these too are highly-successful states.
Today, sub-Nigerian identities offer a more attractive sense of belonging than the Nigerian nation because the latter is equated with the state, and considering the state has so far been a general failure, why on earth would anyone expect most to meaningfully identify with its twin, the nation? Davido and Wizkid, with their global successes, have probably done more to encourage young people to identify with Nigerian-ness than the entire Nigerian state apparatus. Again, this boils down to people’s desire for association with success.
The problem with relying on a few exceptional individuals to inspire national pride is that when Nigerians wake up the day after Wizkid has won a Grammy or Chimamanda a Nobel, they will still be waking up in a country with no steady electricity, no running water, no functional health system and crushing surrounding poverty. The feats of exceptional individuals can inspire euphoric moments of national pride, but that is all they are, moments.
Lasting national identification is forged in the mundane everyday encounters between citizen and state. Each time a Nigerian walks into a government institution and has his or her issue resolved swiftly and fairly, that person’s identification with the Nigerian state, and by extension, Nigerian identity, increases by a little bit. Each time their issue is not resolved swiftly or fairly or at all, that identification and sense of loyalty is tested.
To achieve a meaningful identification with Nigerian-ness, what is needed is an environment where all can count on an efficient and just state to ensure everyone plays by the agreed rules and those who don’t are punished irrespective of which part of the country they hail from. If a functional Nigerian state is built, national success will follow as will the emotional buy-in required for a popular national identity.
But without a well-functioning state, any hopes of a meaningful national identity, much less unity, are in vain. What we will have instead is what we are slowly starting to witness: an increasingly fierce inter-personal and inter-group struggle for increasingly scarce resources fostering the sure but steady disintegration of the Nigerian project along with whatever vestiges of Nigerian-ness do currently exist.
Dr. Remi Adekoya