Michael Chedoziem Chukwudera
It is something which gives one a kick in the teeth to watch how, over the last 50 years, Nigeria has gone round and round in circles without making any true progress as a nation. In the first five years after Nigeria got Independence from Britain in 1960, things swung back and forth enough to cause much political division in the country which eventually led to a coup in 1966, a counter-coup, secession and a war whose resultant bile can still be tasted in various factions of the country. When one takes the time to go through the Nigerian history, indeed, one sees that there are a lot of unanswered questions – a lot of unresolved conflicts. Nigeria has been plagued by a lot of problems which has kept the nation in the rather sorry state in which we find it today. This problem is being looked at from many perspectives. It has been given many names, the most common of which are tribalism and corruption. Most people will agree that majority of Nigeria’s problem fall into these two major categories. But then, there is a blatant attempt, from the Nigerian mainstream political sphere and intelligentsia, it seems, to not talk about these problems from the vantage of history.
When one goes to the books in search of the history of Nigeria, particularly from the early 1920s when the major struggles for Independence began with the formation of Nigerian National Democratic Party in 1923, to the first cross-carpeting led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1951, to Independence in 1960, one finds that the issues of ethnicism currently plaguing the country are far from new. When one goes further to study post-colonial Nigeria from 1960 to 1966, one begins to see where the seeds of ethnicism, cluelessness and the lack of common national spirit culminated in breeding the saga, whose resultant problems Nigeria is yet to recover from 54 years after. Ever since then, it has been a ‘running around in circles’ with no definitive course of action taken to stir the country in the right direction.
History is the study of the course of the timeline of human development across all spheres. And although it seems to move in a straight line because time never moves back, it is actually more cyclical. And part of history’s relevance is in how the circumstances which led to the major conflicts in the past always find a way to replicate themselves in the present. In some quarters, people will say history repeats itself. Events happening across eras or epochs, though bearing similarity in cause and effects, always maintain their unique differences. But yes, it is a very valid assertion to say that history repeats itself. This is because part of history’s relevance lies in the fact that, in studying the past, we can understand the present and be better equipped for facing the future. Nigeria’s case is not an exception to this thumb rule.
When one establishes and accepts that the circumstances which led to the formation of Nigeria were not one of deliberate cohesion and agreement between those who we might refer to as the founding fathers, one begins to understand certain things. Nigeria was formed in 1914 when the British Messenger, Lord Frederick Lugard, amalgamated what was then known as the Southern Soudan and Northern Soudan and his mistress, Flora Shaw Lugard, chose a name, Niger area, for the amalgamated region. It was both names which were joined together to arrive at Nigeria, the current name of the country today. The chain reactions leading to the colonialists invading Africa and by extension West Africa and the numerous regions and Kingdoms which now make up Nigeria were as a result of the 1884/5 Conference at Berlin. It was where European politicians and diplomats had gathered and shared Africa among themselves. In 1914, when Nigeria was amalgamated, it is safe to say that the regions at the time did not have sufficient educated peoples of their own or independent thinkers well-groomed in the ways of the white man who could stand-in for what their people represented. It often begs the question: who were the people who agreed with the British to amalgamate these two distant regions with little or no cultural and ideological similarities into a single state?! The first sign that Nigeria might have been an error of Colonialism was around 1956 when the Northerners first expressed their disinterest in a separate country from the Colonial contraption against the Southern consensus at the time. It is important to note here that while Lugard’s amalgamation might have created a unified expression of the Northern and Southern protectorates, he did not create a nation off them. Obafemi Awolowo is quoted to have disagreed with the concept of Nigeria when he said in 1947, ‘Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English,’ ‘Welsh,’ or ‘French.’ The word ‘Nigerian’ is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria from those who do not.’ At one point or another in Nigeria’s history, every major faction of Nigeria has fought to be free from the Nigerian contraption. There are a lot of inferences which could be made from why this is so. The last real struggle, however, and which was the most brutal, was the Nigeria-Biafra war, which resulted from the Eastern Wing of the country breaking off, after the agreement at the Aburi accord was not honoured by the Nigerian side.
The Aburi accord which was an agreement between General Yakubu Gowon and Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu was necessitated after the Igbo people and her neighbours suffered multiple progroms in 1966 following the counter-coup which ousted General Aguiyi Ironsi as Nigeria’s head of state. It was an agreement which was meant to address the strategic inequalities in the distribution of resources in Nigeria and the positioning of the military which became the order of the day, as a result of Aguiyi Ironsi’s unitary government — a system which he installed to appease the Northern faction of the country, aggrieved at the time over the first coup which was infamously tagged an Igbo coup.
But then, Gowon returned to Nigeria and decided that this agreement which was reached by both parties was for some reason, no longer worthy of honour. Nigeria has proven to be a country whose rulers prefer to sweep history under the carpet and prefer to not interrogate the motives of the past. If not, there ought to be questions asked and a national discussion on what could have been the reason why General Yakubu Gowon who until that time, had vociferously spoken up against the concept of One Nigeria took such a U-turn as to renege on an agreement, led Nigeria to war against Biafra and support a blockade strategy in the war which led to the death of about two million Biafran children.
The timeline of the country since the supposed end of that war on January 15th 1970 to this date leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Since 1970, Nigeria has gone from being one of the world’s highest producers of groundnut, cocoa and palm oil to one whose agricultural sector is in shambles. The research institutes built in respect to these crops are all in a sorry state. Nigeria has also become the poverty capital of the world, a country where insecurity and terrorism take up about fifty percent of the headlines on the news, and where it has become normal to see pictures of beheaded people on the news. It has become a country where there has been no development in science and technology. It begs the question of the Nigeria-Biafra War and the question indeed is, what need really was there for that war? What was the need to keep a country that has gone through such a monumental regression in the past fifty years, and what is the need of keeping it now?
At the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war, General Gowon did a very interesting thing. The Nigerian soldiers who fought the war were not given any medals. The Biafrans were given, as it was portrayed on international media, a brother’s welcome. A promise was made to reconstruct, rehabilitate and reconcile with the Biafran region (3Rs) which is yet to be fulfilled till this day. And then, in addition to all of these, as though Nigeria was too eager to move on, everything about the war was swept under the carpet, and the causes and the mode in which it was fought have never made it to National TV till this day. This is so much that at some point, when enough literature about the war had surfaced, history was removed from the Nigerian curriculum. The result of this is that many young Nigerians, even those with high educational qualifications, are unable to see Nigeria’s problem from the vantage of the major events of its pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history. Young people of these days were born into the difficulty of being a Nigerian as in the case of an absurdity which one grows trying to make sense of. Everything is seen from a vantage of the present. And most of them have been fooled into believing Nigeria’s problem is corruption as was touted by the present government before they assumed power in 2015. Things have been rationalised as though to present a picture that Nigeria’s problem can be fixed by continuous rolling of the electoral dice till it turns and produces a messiah who would make 1$ equal
N1 or perform some Midas touches on the economy.
What would history have revealed to young Nigerians? Fundamentally, it would, at the very least, bring into form, the cause of the perpetual ethnic disagreements in various factions of the country and how it is not new. It would make the structural problem of the country evident. It would bring into perspective, the problem of neocolonialism which the Nigerian elites would rather talk about from the sides of their mouth without proper interrogation of the problems posed by the issue. It would make us realise that the Southern Kaduna killings and every other form of killings based on ethnic bile are not new to Nigeria because far back as the 1940s, there have been ethnic progroms in Nigeria. History would present Nigeria’s problems for the cycle that it is and the recurrent form, which it occurs, and it would lead to the appropriate questions being asked. Nigeria remains as it is till this day because the appropriate questions have not yet been asked. It is almost as though there is among the Nigerian intelligentsia, a consensus to create boundaries in how far they should go in trying to discuss these issues. They talk about ethnic problems, but never talk about the historical and focal points of the problem, they talk about neocolonialism but never talk about how to decolonise, they talk about Black Lives Matter, but they turn around and attend literary festivals funded by a murderous politician, they talk about Nigeria’s perpetual backwardness, but will never be caught questioning the basis of the existence of the country. They try to treat nationalism on the basis of ethnicism as evil, not because in the real sense they are against ethnic bigotry, but because they work for a system which does not want to address the issues of ethnicism plaguing Nigeria.
Today in Nigeria, political positions or appointments are not got based on qualification or merit, but mostly on the basis of ethnicism. In the social sphere, it is mostly through the corrupt version of elitism called connection. As 2023 approaches, the Igbo elites are touting the rhetoric of Igbo Presidency. The argument is that fifty years after the war ended, an Igbo man has never been at the helm of affairs and that the problem of Nigeria’s unity will be solved when an Igbo man ascends the presidency, because Igbo people being the most sociable of Nigerians will not stir the country in the way of ethnic bigotry. This is an agenda being pursued by Igbo elites; the same Igbo elites who for the past decade, have been dishing out one of the worst brands of leadership in Nigeria. The same people who have been unable to encourage the education of their people in the history which the country strives to deprive them of because they are still interested in how Nigeria, as it is, benefits them. These are yet the same people who are quiet in the face of their people being persecuted in Nigeria. One needs not look far to ascertain the invalidity of their claims of having the magic wand to stir Nigeria away from the path of the bad wind of ethnocentricism. In truth, neither the Igbo man nor the Igbo elite is innocent of the ethnicism and elitism which plagues the country. If Nigeria were okay, it wouldn’t matter much if the Presidents ruling since 1999 were Fulani or Yoruba or Igbo. Terms like ‘Igbo presidency’ or ‘Hausa presidency’ would sound ridiculous because the goal would be about the progression of the country. How then do the Igbo elites think they can solve an ethnic problem by administering more ethnic doses?
Whenever there is a political problem in the country, the politician’s biggest tool is ethnocentrism, and he knows it. Nigerian politicians are by the day, perfecting the art of turning one group against the other. And because it is such an effective tool, it is not likely to be done away with any time soon. During the elections, the ethnocentric tools are based on the ethnic divides. The ordinary citizens put their lives on the line for the sake of politicians who have promised them a better life. When the politicians get into office, if they continued that ethnocentric fight or pursued a cause for the interest of their people, it might have made more sense. But when they get to Aso Rock or House of Assembly, the people who they tricked into fighting for them with the ethnic propaganda no longer matter. Another form of ethnicism assumes the mantle—the ethnicism of the rich and the poor. In the House of Assembly, both the Hausa, the Ijo, the Igbo, the Nupe, the Yoruba, the Efik come together, and they steal the blind citizens dry, even as they keep the propaganda which gives them power alive. One may, of course, look at this picture and say the embezzlement of money and misappropriation of funds are Nigeria’s biggest problems and not ethnicism and it might make a fair argument. But if we cast our minds to the bigger picture, we would realise that the biggest problem is always the primary problem. The talks about Igbo presidency, Yoruba presidency, Hausa presidency and all which causes a division in the country every four years is an ethnic problem. The tools which the politicians use in dividing his people from the people of the other politicians to prevent them from coming together to wrestle against the common thief is an ethnic problem. The Nigeria-Biafra War which the country has not yet recovered from, and for which history was wiped out from the curriculum, is an ethnic problem – the reason for which developmental infrastructures; international airports, seaports, etc., have not been put in place in some regions of the country is an ethnic problem. The 1999 Constitution was put in place and created a centralised government, and this centralised government has made it difficult for the people of a local jurisdiction to hold their legislators to account, and for judicial reforms to be put in place. Because of the rot in the judiciary and the upper and lower houses of assembly, the executive has gone largely unchecked.
This problem of ethnicism and even the much-touted corruption has a root in history. The reason why the various factions of the country cannot agree and have for years been unable to come together to demand accountability of their leaders is that there is no shared interest among the people. While the people from one region want a different country, the people from the other want a president from their region and so on. And how did these people who are so different ideologically come to be stuck in one country under a centralised system? Why does each region not have enough autonomy to develop at its own pace? Why is the North not having this talk of restructuring? These are questions that only history can answer. Whether or not the people on both ethnic biases of the argument are consciously talking from the historical point, the one true building block of a people’s psychology is history.
It is history which has the power to bring Nigeria’s problem into the most lucid perspective. To show the cycle for what it really is, and why in the 21-years of supposed democracy, the people continue to find themselves in the same place every four years. Trying to solve a problem deeply rooted in history by ignoring that same history is akin to trying to escape from one’s shadow. Trying to solve a problem of ethnicity by focusing on corruption as the Buhari-led government has supposedly done in the past five years is akin to solving a problem best suited to a sickle with a cutlass. A house which stands is one that is not divided against itself. There is a lot of hypocrisy concerning the country’s real problem. Every contraption comes sooner or later to its breaking point. Nigeria could prevent a most tragic outcome if and only if, the issue of history is addressed.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a Writer, journalist, and editor and can be reached on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi