Nigeria’s founding principles are in jeopardy
“Together” — that is the theme that Nigeria has chosen to mark 60 years of independence from Britain.
That determination to keep the country united has been a hallmark of Nigeria’s existence, particularly after the 1967 attempt by the Igbo ethnic group to secede and form a separate nation, Biafra. Fifty years after the civil war, the main policies underpinning national unity are in jeopardy.
Nigeria’s founding fathers were of different faiths and tribes, and unity is considered a tribute to their struggle and vision. Nigeria’s crude oil wealth lies mainly in the Biafra region, so it is in the wider interest for the country to stay together.
But Nigeria’s postcolonial history has been fraught with tensions between its dominant ethnic groups: the Igbo in the south-east; the Yoruba in the south-west, and the Hausa in the north.
These groups lived separately before the British merged them, then amalgamated the majority Christian south and majority Muslim north into one country in 1914. Within a few years of 1960, feelings of unfair treatment had soured the union.
“We have painfully realised that the Federation of Nigeria has failed, and has given us no protection,” said Biafra leader Emeka Ojukwu in 1967. Up to 3m lives were lost during the war, and ended after Biafra surrendered in 1970.
One of the policies put in place after the civil war was the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), which made it mandatory for graduates below the age of 30 to render one year of service in a part of Nigeria other than their region of birth or domicile.
I grew up in Abia State in the south-east, studied at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, in the south-west, and was posted by the NYSC to Nasarawa State in the north. That was my first trip to northern Nigeria and my first experience of a Hausa-speaking community. Without the NYSC, many Nigerians could easily spend their entire lives never knowing or caring about faraway regions and peoples in their own country.
So far, the government has shown no intention to dump the corps. But, in recent years, politicians and pundits have called for the policy to be scrapped. With rising insecurity, parents are reluctant to see their children sent to regions where their safety cannot be guaranteed.
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Youth corps members have been among those killed during Boko Haram attacks and religious riots in the north, and in election violence and other conflicts in north and south.
A second unifying policy was the establishment of Unity Schools in every state in 1973. Admission would be highly competitive and students would benefit from the best education Nigeria had to offer. A quota system would ensure every part of the country was represented in enrolment. With children from different ethnicities together at such an early age, the hope was that they would grow up as one.
Today, Unity Schools are divisive. To control intakes, cut-off marks for admissions exams vary by state, and every year there is an outcry from southern Nigeria about low requirements for students from the north. Religion, culture, past-colonial policies, and more recently the insurgency group Boko Haram, have kept northern Nigeria’s education provision lagging the south. Nigeria has the largest proportion of out-of-school children in the world, according to Unicef, 69 per cent are in the north.
Outrage from regional leaders has led to discussions in parliament about the cut-off marks, with lawmakers expressing concern about encouraging laziness and mediocrity.
69% Proportion of of out-of-school children in the north of Nigeria
The third policy is the “federal character principle” established in 1979, which includes a provision for every public institution to reflect the diversity of Nigeria. This policy, also quota-led, disregards differences in human capital development between north and south.The north is home to 90m of a near 200m population, and 19 of 36 states, plus the federal territory of Abuja. That means northerners take more jobs in public institutions. “Regrettably, federal character has become a euphemism for recruiting unqualified people into the public service,” says Ike Ekweremadu, a former deputy president of Nigeria’s senate. “These employees decrease productivity, weaken our public service and render it inefficient.”
The policy is applied at leadership level, meaning unqualified people can rise above more qualified colleagues. Opposition candidates in the 2019 presidential election ran on promises of reforming Federal Character, though President Buhari has so far ignored calls for reform.
“I believe we should have Nigerians from all over the country in public office, but all those Nigerians must be people that are competent. There must be a merit test, a competence test,” says Lamido Sanusi, a former Emir of Kano in the north-west.
I believe we should have Nigerians from all over the country in public office, but all those Nigerians must be people that are competent. There must be a merit test
All three policies are now challenged. Separatist groups capitalising on a sense of marginalisation have formed in recent years, including the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the south-east and the Oduduwa Republic in the south-west.
Given the number of lives lost in the Biafra uprising, few Nigerians have an appetite for violence as a means of resolving ethnic grievances. Many political and religious leaders are calling for dialogue, and for Nigeria to grant regions more autonomy.
Nevertheless, President Buhari cannot take agitation lightly. There is a limit to how much aggrieved sections of the country can tolerate.
The writer is a novelist and journalist based in Abuja, Nigeria. She is the author of the novels ‘I do Not Come to You by Chance’ and ‘Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree’.
This article is part of , an FT special report published in the Financial Times on Thursday 29 October and online at.
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