Nigeria at 61: Is It Worth Celebrating?

Nigeria at 61: Is It Worth Celebrating?

By Sani Danaudi Mohammed

The history of Nigeria can be traced to settlers trading across the Middle East and Africa as early as 1100 BC. Numerous ancient African civilizations settled in the region that is known today as Nigeria, such as the Kingdom of Nri, the Benin Empire, and the Oyo Empire. Islam reached Nigeria through the Borno Empire around (1068 AD) and Hausa States around (1385 AD). On the other hand, Christianity came to Nigeria in the 15th century through Augustinian and Capuchin monks from Portugal.

Nigeria’s first indigenous Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of blessed memory delivered the historic independence speech on behalf of the 45.2 million Nigerians who, according to the current estimates, have increased to 206 million. Two years to October 1, 1960, every Nigerian had eagerly looked forward to the celebration. Words cannot adequately express how elated most Nigerians felt as Nigeria was declared by Her Royal Highness as an independent nation which reserves the right to operate by her Constitution.

Seven years after independence, the euphoria which greeted the epochal event became regrettably short lived with the breaking out of the civil war which pitted the most part of the eastern region against the Nigerian military government ruled by Yakubu Gowon. The eastern region, led by the unforgettable warlord, Odumegwu Ojukwu, wanted to secede from the existing government to become the State of Biafra. The three-year conflict brought about the death of more than two million people, most of whom were women and children who died of starvation in eastern Nigeria. The war the ended, as the saying goes, with no victor and no vanquished. The easterners, especially those who had lost their houses – termed abandoned properties – and all their savings were worse hit after the war in 1970, as it took them a stretch of time to recover both emotionally and financially.

Historically, identities have played a significant role in the Nigerian political process during the colonial period and in the post-colonial era. During the colonial period, the administrators allowed the emergence and aggravation of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ syndrome where Muslims were pitted against Christians, Northerners against the Southerners, Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo against each other, and so on. In this era, religious and ethnic differences became prominent factors in instituting and executing socio-economic strategies and applications. Therefore, the differentiating outcomes of colonialism became the forerunner of the socio-economic disequilibrium among the different regions, and then this became an important factor in the stimulation of identity awareness so as to efficiently ‘divide and rule’. But as a counter argument, it must be said that internal factors are more determinant than the external ones in creating the cleavages in Nigeria.

Therefore, breakdown, breakaway, civil strife, civil war, minority nervousness, and violent clashes, all of which could typically be regarded as unusual in normal states, are common forces or actual occurrences in divided states. The country is finding it very difficult because of a complicated network of politically silent identities, coupled with a history of protracted and seemingly stubborn wars and instability, Nigeria is high on the list as one of the most unstable states in Africa. Since its independence, Nigeria has been driven hither and thither by recurrent crises of regional or state illegitimacy, often impairing efforts at democratization, stability, economic transformation and national cohesion. A peak of the crisis appears to have occurred during the civil war of the 1960s, which began shortly after independence. Since 1999 when Nigeria transited into civilian rule, the country has witnessed a rapid increase in the number of conflicts.

The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in his book written in 1947, Path to Nigeria Freedom, says “Nigeria is not a nation but a mere geographical expression”. According to him, there are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English, Welsh or French’. The word ‘Nigeria’, in Awolowo’s submission, “…is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not”. Therefore, the challenges which confront Nigeria 61 years after could be attributed to her peculiarities of multi-ethnicity and diversity. There is no doubt that Nigeria is synonymous with deep divisions which cause major political issues to be vigorously and violently contested along the lines of intricate ethnic, religious and regional divisions. Issues that raise the most dust are those regarded essential for the existence and the validity of the state.

Awolowo’s submission has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that Nigeria is still battling to be a homogenous state. The agitation for secession by some section of the country is evidence that many are yet to conceptualize Nigeria as one indivisible sovereign state. The unabated agitation of secessionists like IPOB leader (Nnamdi Kanu) and Oduduwa Nation advocate (Sunday Ighoho) indicates that, as we celebrate this year’s independence anniversary, much needs to be done to bring the country back to life. The late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa seemed to be at one with Awolowo’s description of Nigeria in 1947 as lacking in cohesion among its people. He (Balewa) said that, since the amalgamation of the Southern and the Northern Protectorates in 1914, Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper, and that it is still far from being united. Nigeria’s unity is only the intention of the British for the country.

A high level of corruption and the looting of state resources is another serious and common problem that aggravates all forms of conflict and trouble in Nigeria. Nigeria is richly endowed with natural resources and high quality human capital but corruption is the bane of her development. The appropriation of state resources by certain hands makes poverty and bitter anger inevitable aspects of daily socio-economic and political routine.

Insecurity is another challenge which confronts Nigeria. Today, India, despite its multi-ethnic status, boasts of world-class hospitals, functional educational system, enviable technology and first-rate industries that produce war planes which are used in guaranteeing security in the populous nation. In spite of the large density of both natural and human resources with which Nigeria is endowed, all is not well yet. It is of great concern that Nigeria is still a study in the crises of unity and stability. And unless the present Muhammadu Buhari-led government does something fast curtail the growing insecurity which is more or less like an incubus on both the socio-religious and political fronts, the wounds it has inflicted on Nigeria may receive little or no healing.

Today, ethnicity is another challenge to surmount for Nigeria to enjoy stability. Ethnicity is a social phenomenon that is manifested in the interaction among individuals of different ethnic groups within a political system where language and culture are the most prominent attributes. The formation of dialects within languages was one of the ways in which ethnicity – both small-scale and large-scale – became fixed in Nigeria. Although there are over 400 languages in Nigeria, only three are considered major while the rest are considered minor languages. However, the distribution of these languages is directly proportional to both political and socio-economic power and, therefore the language group to which one belongs defines one’s status in the society. Missionaries and local politicians created standard languages and hoped that they would homogenize language and ethnicity and, thus, create more harmonious ethnic identities.

Since the restoration of democratic rule, ethnic identity and mobilization in the Nigerian political landscape has often precipitated political instability. Between 1999 and 2013, more than 11 000 deaths have resulted from more than five hundred incidents of communal violence. Ethnic violence has been witnessed in almost all regions in the country, but with particular frequency in the Niger Delta, the Muslim North and Northwest, and along the middle-belt. The level of insecurity witnessed during the post-military period is considerably higher than that experienced during the three decades of military rule which ended in 1999. It is often assumed that there exist stable identities in Nigeria and consistent group motives in the approach to ethnic politics. However, the upsurge of ethnicity in Nigeria in recent years leads researchers to re-examine identity formation.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria has come of age, having attained political independence for upwards of six decades. In spite of its numerous challenges which range from socio-economic, infrastructural deficit, insecurity to endemic corruption, Nigeria remains Africa’s Big Brother and an important member of the world body, the United Nations. The ghost of Biafra continues to haunt Nigeria; hence, we have festering violence in the North-East zone, banditry in the North West region and the farmers-herders confrontations in the North Central axis. The renewed agitations for Biafra and Oduduwa nations and the oil-rich Niger Delta residents’ clamour for resource control have been identified as consequences of Nigeria’s failure to use justice as the arbiter of public policies.

Ethnicity is seen as the most basic and politically salient identity of Nigerians. This argument is based on the premise that, in their competitive and non-competitive contexts, Nigerians tend to define themselves in terms of ethnic affinities as opposed to other identities. A survey conducted in Nigeria by Lewis and Bratton found out that almost half of Nigerians (48.2%) label themselves with an ethnic identity compared to 28.4% who label themselves with respect to class and 21% who identify with a religious group. This means that over 66% of Nigerians view themselves as members of an elemental ethnic or religious group. What is even more interesting is the fact that religious and ethnic identities are more salient than class identities. However, this is not at all that surprising, especially if one considers that ethno-religious formations are the most persistent behavioural units in Nigeria.

Lewis states that civilian governments supposedly promote the creation of ethnic politicization and political schism. On the other hand, non-democratic regimes like military rules are usually repercussions from the side of the political elite. In most cases, therefore, mechanisms of political governance are formed on the basis of ethnicity via custom-made patronage systems. For instance, in Nigeria, the ethnic factor is seen when political parties are formed and during elections. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) was formed in the First Republic as Hausa-Fulani party. Similarly, the Igbos belonged to the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) while the Yoruba prided themselves as members of the Action Group (AG). These parties later metamorphosed into the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the Nigerian People Party (NPP) and the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) respectively during the Second Republic. The Third Republic witnessed the emergence of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC). The current ruling All Progressives Congress and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party are not different from the above mentioned.

Nigeria is faced with some of the most obstinate conflicts, most of which are constructed from differences in religious and ethnic identities. Religious and ethnic nationalism has led to conflicts about control of state power, unequal allocation of resources, citizenship issues, state collapse, economic decline and ethno-religious clashes. Nigeria has been pushed hither and thither by recurrent crises of regional or state illegitimacy, often impairing efforts at economic transformation, democratization, national cohesion and stability. With this continental background in mind, efforts have been made to examine the relationship between religion, ethnicity and conflict in Nigeria, focusing mainly on issues in the North of the country. The pertinent questions are, to what extent are conflicts emerging from ethnic or religious sources and how does the notion of identity explain the crises of development and complexities in modern Nigeria?

Nigeria has three major religious identities: Christian, Islamic and traditional religions. Traditional religions are the most politically inactive of the three groups, numbering several hundreds of ethnic groups and sub-groups, villages, clans and kin groups and involving the worship of different gods and goddesses. On the other hand, Christian and Islamic identities have continued to be the backbone of religious disparity and conflict, and this differentiation underlies the North-South dichotomy. The fact that an average Nigerian is very religious was observed by certain scholars. Religion plays a critical role in the Nigerian society and has expressed itself as a potent force in the geo-political development of the country. This force, which has been used to unite Nigerians, is the same force that has led to numerous conflicts in the country. Nigeria has been engulfed in numerous religious crises and/or conflicts since inception of Nigeria in 1914.
The Hausa-Fulani and other smaller ethnic groups that inhabit the north of the country are Muslims while the Igbo and the other smaller groups residing in the South are primarily Christians. Groups lying in the middle comprise a mixture of Christians and Muslims while the Yoruba found in the Southwest are almost half Muslim and half Christian. This Muslim North and Christian South cleavage enhances ethnic fractionalizations in Nigeria.

Given that ethnicity, religion and regional bigotries have been identified as the major factors that have militated against Nigeria’s journey to its ideal destination after 61 years of sovereignty, there is need for aggrieved Nigerian citizens to unite and form a formidable force to fight the vagabonds in power through conscious revolution. The Nigerian masses need the fighting spirit, not by guns but by change of mindset and character towards doing the right thing aimed at bridging the gap between the lines of artificial hatred. We need to change the narrative in this country by awaking the fighting spirit in each of us. From the outset, Nigeria’s ethnic and religious tensions were magnified by the disparities in economic and educational development between the south and the north.

Many Nigerians are of the opinion that Nigeria has nothing to celebrate considering the over increasing tensions and uprising from different sections of the country Particularly the Confrontations between the Northern and Southern Governors regarding the 2023 Presidency. To me, we have too many reasons to celebrate despite these challenges confronting us as a nation. The survival of Nigeria as one indivisible and indissoluble country, despite many unfruitful attempts by certain ethnic groups at breaking away from it, is enough reason to celebrate the nation’s independence at 61. It is an unarguable discourse that the nation-state model is in danger in Nigeria, as in many other so-called nation-states. It is an opportunity for both the leadership and the followership to correct the past ills and, together, heal our wounds so as to set a new standard for an emerging new Nigeria where our identity is not our language, tribe, region and religion but where our national flag symbolizes our common identity, that is, unity. Happy independence celebration to Nigeria and Nigerians!

Sani Danaudi Mohammed, National President of Arewa Youths Advocate for Peace and Unity Initiative, writes in from Bauchi via [email protected]


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