Is the unity of Nigeria truly non-negotiable? By Tolu Ogunlesi
“I honestly don’t believe Goodluck Jonathan or Pius Anyim really believe what they’ve been quoted as saying regarding the inviolable unity of Nigeria.”
‘Nigeria’ is perhaps, on some distant, unknown planet, a synonym for ‘Confusion’. See how the ‘Nigeria @ 50’ franchise has coolly given way to ‘Nigeria @ 100’, barely four years later. To the uninitiated, it calls to mind the madness-inducing mathematical conundrum that Femi Kuti sang about years ago, in ‘Scatta Head.’ Indeed what laws of geometric progression can explain how a fifty-year-old turns hundred in four years?
On a more serious note, isn’t it interesting that the year of our centenary is also the one that has brought all of the following: News of our status as Africa’s largest economy; the hosting of our first ever World Economic Forum on Africa; the most alarming surge ever in the biggest threat to the country’s peaceful existence since the civil war; and a National Conference that (if pessimists like me are to be disbelieved) will provide the best opportunity since Independence for Nigerians to restructure their country and chart a new course forward?
It was as though 2014 got a memo regarding its place in the Lugardian calendar of Nigerian history.
It also provides the best opportunity since the return of democracy in 1999 for us to practice something other than a one-party democracy. And in the coming weeks the stakes are going to rise, as the political parties make decisions about the candidates they will be fielding in the 2015 elections. Our fingers will be crossed, as always.
As we prepare for that future, for the great uncertainties that 2015 – 2019 will embody, do you think that Nigeria should seriously consider breaking-up peacefully, and allowing the various ‘nations’ within it find their separate ways into the future? Or is that ‘splitting-up’ scenario still the unimaginable one it’s long been portrayed to be: one to be shouted down against a colourful backdrop of ‘Go-On-With-One-Nigeria’ banners and patriotic admonitions to “defend her unity… so help me God.”
On the BBC programme HardTalk first broadcast on May 9 host Shaun Ley asked Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka the ‘elephant-in-the-room’ question: “Are you saying that it has a future as a single country or is Nigeria’s best hope to recognize its differences and to allow it to slowly separate?”
Soyinka’s reply opened with these words: “I would say that we are poised on the thin edge of a knife…”
He went on to say that he “hardly ever use[s] the word ‘nation’ anymore, I prefer the expression ‘nation-space’, especially for artificial spaces like ours… that space is getting smaller, more fragile, more questionable, every moment that we live, it’s getting more and more questionable…”
Soyinka is placing some of his hopes for a more reasonable future on the ongoing National Conference.
But that’s the same conference that Secretary to the Government, Pius Anyim, said, in January, “shall discuss any subject matter, except the indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria as a nation.”
Does it make any sense to have a National Conference that is supposed to offer an opportunity for a total re-evaluation of the structure of the Nigerian state, and then saddle it with a caveat that removes one of the most critical issues from the table?
Isn’t this a case of saying ‘You can have anything you want/need except…’ without realizing the embedded irony?
We are regularly told that a generation of Nigerian statesmen gave their all to preserve the unity of Nigeria. People like President Obasanjo have built a reputation around insisting the unity of Nigeria is (as Pius Anyim echoed) “non-negotiable”. President Jonathan’s speech at the opening of the National Conference is also remarkable for the number of times it refers to “unity” or “national unity.”
Now this is my question: Do we as ordinary Nigerians really believe these platitudes about unity? Is “unity” a more important ideal than, say, self-determination, human dignity, freedom of choice, or a meaningful existence? What exactly does “unity” mean? And should anyone who asks for a reconsideration of blind loyalty to be deemed guilty of being a traitor?
I daresay this is where I stand: while I’m not necessarily advocating a break-up of Nigeria (there’s no evidence as we speak that it’ll solve any of our big problems), I am saying that there’s nothing inviolable about our existence as a single nation-space. I think we need to acknowledge that, and take it as the starting point for any conversation regarding where we are headed as a union of hundreds of disparate peoples.
Look at the United Kingdom, which, after spending much of its illustrious history busying itself with drawing and redrawing other people’s maps and geographical boundaries and deciding the terms of their internal engagements, is now faced with the very difficult prospects of having its own lines redrawn.
In September Scotland will go to the polls in a historic vote to decide whether or not it would like to continue as a part of the United Kingdom. That ‘Independence Vote’ is arguably the biggest issue at the moment in the country. The world will be watching to see how things play out. Just imagine the implication of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom on the cause of separatist movements across the world – including our own resurgent array of pro-Biafra movements?
Even if Scotland ends up staying (to be the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, as Prime Minister David Cameron says), the similar Big Question facing Nigeria will be going nowhere anytime soon.
I honestly don’t believe Goodluck Jonathan or Pius Anyim really believe what they’ve been quoted as saying regarding the inviolable unity of Nigeria. I think it’s simply them saying what they think they’re expected to say. An older generation of leaders (the Obasanjos and Gowons) may have said it because for some reason they truly believed it – but I doubt it’s the same for the generation of leaders and politicians that have emerged after them.
Let’s keep it in mind that that older generation is on its way out, along with its passions for a Nigeria-as-it-has-always-been-since-1914. A time is coming when the notion of “non-negotiable” Nigerian unity will no longer be sacrosanct. We will have to acknowledge the elephant, and work out a plan to deal with her.
The hope is that when that time comes, all of our conversation around it will be as devoid of bloodshed and violence as the Independence debate currently going on in the UK.
The Other Boko Haram
Long after Boko Haram has ceased to exists (and one hopes that would be very soon), we will still have to deal with the other Boko Haram – the ones we elect and appoint to public office, at all levels of government, who fail to allocate sufficient funds to the educational sector, steal the little that manages to get allocated, and work hard to ensure that our polytechnics can stay closed for seven months (as they’ve been) and that that 10 million Nigerians of school age are kept away from school. These are demonstrations of sadism that we cannot blame on Abubakar Shekau and his band of book-haraming murderers, alas.
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