Why Nigeria Can’t Break Up

By Chris Ngwodo

biafran flag

No bad idea is regurgitated as constantly as the notion that the solution to chronic violence in Nigeria is for her to “break up.” The case for Nigeria’s disintegration surfaces routinely after tragic episodes of violence and has emerged following the recent increase in sectarian terrorism. Some perspective is necessary. Since the days before the Civil War, beating the drums of separatism has become a sort of pre-programmed response to national calamity. Rumours of our impending divorce attended the 1964 elections, the June 12 1993 crisis, the death of Moshood Abiola in 1998 and the Sharia controversy in 2001. In 1990, a gang of over-ambitious soldiers attempting to oust the Babangida regime even purported to evict five northern states from the federation. Thus, current debates about the durability of Nigeria are nothing new.

It is intellectually lazy and astonishingly parlous thinking to suggest that the solution to our national crisis is disintegration. It is true that much life has been expended on the Nigeria project to no apparent redemptive effect but what we owe the dead and the unborn as well as ourselves is clear-minded thinking on the fate of our union rather than just emotive polemics.

The usual suggestion is that Nigeria be divided between a “Muslim North” and “Christian South” or among its so-called big three – the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Beyond these imprecise propositions, there is little specificity as to what shape post-Nigerian nations would look like except perhaps for the preposterous suggestion that every ethnic group should become a nation. These arguments are fallacious. Nigeria is not and has never been a country of monolithic religious halves. Christians and Muslims are scattered in substantial proportions and ethnic variety across the country. There are Fulani Christians and Igbo Muslims. Millions of Yoruba families contain adherents of both faiths. Nigeria is far more complex and diverse than the Hausa-Yoruba-Igbo tripod. Making each ethnic group a nation throws up problems. What would we make of Ijaw communities who hug the coastline stretching from the south to the south west? The sheer diversity and interlocking spread of hundreds of ethnic nationalities makes tidy disintegration a virtually impossible proposition.

lord lugard
Lord Lugard

A popular fallacy is that prior to the advent of the colonialists, Nigeria’s ethnic groups existed in self-contained cocoons of utopian bliss unburdened by the necessity of interaction with others. But many of the ethnic and regional identities which are now presumed “sacred” are in fact colonial creations. For instance, it was only after colonization, that the term “Yorubaland” began to be applied to the realms of all rulers who claim descent from Oduduwa, instead of only to the Oyo Kingdom. Before the British came, the Egba, Ijebu, Ekiti, Ijesha and Ilorin peoples fought costly interstate wars among themselves. The longest pre-colonial civil war was the sixteen year Kiriji war which was fought between Yoruba city states. Yoruba nationalism was forged by Obafemi Awolowo who rallied the descendants of Oduduwa as a political force in the new nation. Similarly, Igbos were organized into separate and autonomous republics. Many of them had scant contact with each other with some entirely oblivious of others before the advent of colonialism. Consequently, Igbos fought no wars as a collective. Igbo national consciousness was largely the handiwork of Nnamdi Azikiwe who at one point preached the manifest destiny of the Igbo in Africa. Hausa city-states co-existed through times of war and peace. Even when Uthman Dan Fodio’s jihad established the Sokoto Caliphate, the new emirates were never synonymous with “the North” which was a later British invention and was fortified as a political identity by Ahmadu Bello.

Significantly, pre-colonial societies were not based on ethnic units but rather on age groups, occupations, residence and settlements. Instead of monolithic tribal blocs competing for a share of the national cake, city-states, inclusive kingdoms and republics for the most part made up the area that was eventually christened Nigeria and experienced centuries-long commercial links and cultural cross-pollination.

ojukwu and gowon

Dissolving the Nigerian federation will not resolve the violence that bedevils places like Jos, the conflicts between the Ife and Modakeke in Osun, the Aguleri and Umuleri in Anambra or the Ezza and the Ezillo in Ebonyi, the Jukun and the Tiv or the Itsekiri and the Urhobo. Nor will it end conflicts between nomadic Fulani pastoralists and agrarian communities stretching from the north to the south. These are essentially either local or intra-ethnic conflicts.

Ethnic homogeneity cannot indemnify society against conflict. Somalia, the world’s poster child of failed statehood, has only one ethnic group, the Somali, only one language and is one hundred percent Islamic. South Sudan which only recently celebrated its divorce from Sudan is now embroiled in inter-ethnic conflict within its borders. Back home, we need only look at Bayelsa State and other ethnically homogeneous states to establish conclusively that ethnic homogeneity is not a predictor of peace, social justice or smart governance.

While prodigal political elites practise divisive politics, the Nigerian people themselves live in a socio-economic reality of interdependence and integration. The use of oil wealth from the Niger Delta in sustaining state bureaucracies all over the country may be the most obvious example of this. Less remarked is the dependence of southern urbanites on northern produce for food. The Fulanis are the main custodians of Nigeria’s livestock population, holding over ten million cattle, twenty million goats and millions of sheep. Their industry significantly accounts for protein consumption in the south. The north remains Nigeria’s food basket.

We are so captivated by the witchcraft of separatism that we fail to appreciate the fortuitous or providential alignments of ecological, geographical, cultural and economic factors that have fostered interdependence and integration. For example, if violence in the north was simply about anti-Igbo hatred then it would be saner for Igbos to stay home in the east. But the east is disadvantaged by its erosion-prone poor soil which cannot sustain the population density of the area and which accounts for the comparatively high level of migration of Igbos to other parts of Nigeria. Despite everything, Igbos (and other Nigerians) continue to migrate and mingle because human coexistence dictates it. No man is an Island. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man is from Kano but has most of his investments in the south and employs more southerners than northerners. Millions of Nigerians have become socio-cultural hybrids through intermarriage, cultural adoption and transplantation.

Nigeria’s problem is not her diversity but the failure of the state to affirm Nigerian citizenship as the ultimate identity superseding all other allegiances. It is our failure as citizens, intellectuals and politicians to articulate an all-embracing Nigerian ethos. Rather we waste valuable time and energy rebooting hackneyed definitions of Nigeria as an artificial creation or a mere geographical expression. Yet all nations, possibly except Australia, being creations of human political will, are artificial and begin as geographical novelties; they are not received from heaven. It falls on succeeding generations to transform them from mere geographies into socio-political moralities; to create transcendent solidarities where none existed before. This is what nation-building is about and this is what we have failed so spectacularly to do. Sectarian politics thrives largely because of the dazzling scale of ignorance that Nigerians demonstrate about their history, geography and each other.

It is foolhardy to believe that the failure to treat ourselves as citizens rather than as ethnic and religious partisans will disappear if we dissolve Nigeria. If we cannot treat each other humanely now that we are compatriots, how on earth are we going to do better if we become foreigners? Last year, the Abia state government fired thousands of Igbo-speaking “non-indigenes” from its employment to make room for equally Igbo “indigenes.” Significantly, most conflicts in Nigeria are between so-called “indigenes” and “settlers,” a dichotomy that at times seems to defy ethnic or religious solidarity. These petty bigotries and manifestations of apartheid will not disappear with the Nigerian union. The challenge of civic security is inescapable for there is no possible post-Nigerian construct that would not contain either religious or ethnic minorities. It is worth noting that Biafra, the most serious separatist effort in our history was undermined both by the superior power of the federal forces and the reluctance of ethnic minorities who feared for their own prospects as citizens of Biafra. The problem remains creating a just, fair and equal citizenship that shelters all of us regardless of creed, ethnicity, class or gender.    Nothing suggests that new ethnic republics would in any way be more peaceful, stable or more prosperous than the current Nigerian reality. In short, it would require less effort to renew the Nigerian enterprise than to construct afresh new polities.

Having said all this, nations are not eternal but finite, expiring when they have outlived their usefulness to history and humanity. Nigeria is no different. Nigeria does not currently face immediate disintegration but a slow and steady erosion of federal authority by sundry paramilitaries, warlords and terrorist gangs, until the nation slips inexorably into failed statehood. Already we see signs of this in the brazen terrorism of pseudo-religious extremists who seek to establish alternate governments as well as the rise of oil-bunkering pirate gangs in our southern coastal waters.

It would be a pity if we were to let Nigeria fail. No one who has studied her history, encountered her acute humanity, sampled her cultural riches and researched the dreams of her founding fathers can fail to sense her ordination for higher purposes. For us to abort this purpose would be nothing short of cosmic treason. As Eme Awa once remarked, “If we were to dissolve the federation, a future generation of people will pass the verdict that the Nigerian elites committed suicide while of unsound mind.” Nigeria has not been tried and found wanting. We simply have not invested enough of our intellectual and moral energies into actualizing her promise.

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