Nigerian Diversity and Its Neglect, By Adewale Ajadi
We need a new set of intra-community leaders, supported to develop the capacity to hold the national space for collective, not sectional, progress. We, in Nigeria, are now at a critical place to embrace how we can consciously use our diversity. The thing about diversity is, if you do not use it for good, it will become a fount of destruction.
Nigeria, to many people, is the hope of Africa, a potential international power house, beyond the limit of its continent. Blessed with size, people and prospects, it has a rare promise – from inception – to achieve the kind of influence reserved for the likes of the United States and China. Many already say, alas, less than 60 years after its official independence from British colonial rule, that it has failed these prospects and has very little ahead. This is quite an unfortunate line of thinking; one greatly helped by the assumption of the ease that people assume it takes for a country to become a nation. Ignoring the many strides made by the people of Nigeria, in their daily interactions, often in spite of the authorities and sometimes because of them. The progress of living next to each other in major urban centres in their millions is a more powerful testament than the inevitable conflicts – including in the sad situations where life is lost and differences are exploited – emphasised to perpetuate stereotypes that dehumanise each other.
Nigeria has made progress in spite of itself, like many who are functionally educated, who in sheer numbers’ are nearly twice the overall population of the United Kingdom. The largest share of key African professionals are Nigerians. Then there is the growth of a base of healthy Nigerians against the backdrop of crippling inadequacy in healthcare provisioning and the exponential numbers of the population. Further to this, there is the existence of a vocal and aggressive democracy that often seems to work in fits-and-starts but nevertheless has lasted about 20 years, and counting. It is equally now an emergent economy that withstood the nearly $80 drop in the commodity price that drives its functions; something Venezuela would rather have right now. And has exhibited surprising resilience enough to ensure the last economic recession it expereienced only lasted for a year. All these suggest a system that has a spine of survival, as well as the blessing of providence that can still build up to the international powerhouse that even detractors expect; but which, like most pessimists do, is denigrated.
Nigeria, however, has never truly understood the core of its character because its complexity is beyond the sum of its parts. Almost like watching two halves of the friendly match against the U.K. recently. We seem not to know how critical out diversity is to our future, especially how it will define our place as a prosperous, peaceful and pleasant land. Our diversity, especially, in ethnic, religious and gender terms, is extremely rare amongst the community of nations. The fact that we have nearly 400 assumed ethnic nations and over 500 languages should encourage a deliberate, disciplined and evolving practice of our efforts to translate these into the blessings of collaboration, creativity and excellence, effectively spawning a variety of ways of living, solving problems and realising our immense potentials.
Unfortunately, in a country like Nigeria, the efforts to build the kinds of capacity that bolster cross-identity collaboration, beyond partisan interests, are, if available, largely implicit and unrecognised. This has led to a pattern of conflict exploitation from the Boko Haram, farmers and herdsmen and much more across the country.
It is especially critical in the area where Nigerians seems to be the most exceptional in all the world, with no dominant ethnic group or hegemon in size, distribution or influence. This is a major gap or opportunity (depending on how we engage it) that cannot be resolved by mandates of federal character, systems of numeric representation or any other intervention that rewards distinctiveness as opposed to collaboration. We are now in a place, after one declared civil war and thousands of low intensity conflicts, to fashion a space for ourselves to explore how we can move beyond representation into turning our diversity into its exponential collaborative sum total. A big way to illustrate this complex picture is through leadership. Most of those we call leaders are representative authorities for groupings. Simply, they get on the national stage as representing, formally or informally, a people of some identity. This means that they are there to realise the interest of those people, and at best, they will find alliances of benefit for those causes. However, all over the world, the 21st century has exposed the fault line of allegiances, interests and identities, through many developments. Fostering divisions and supporting them with infrastructures which were only available to countries before. And from their own communication platforms, to even their own standing armies or capacity.
Unfortunately, in a country like Nigeria, the efforts to build the kinds of capacity that bolster cross-identity collaboration, beyond partisan interests, are, if available, largely implicit and unrecognised. This has led to a pattern of conflict exploitation from the Boko Haram, farmers and herdsmen and much more across the country. A few years ago, when the All Progressives Congress administration got elected, I wrote repeatedly about this challenge, and the dangers for an incoming ‘change’ administration not to address this issue. It is understandable that in the face of some key ‘bread and butter’ challenges, this did not rise to the top of priority. In November 2017, my organisation, Synergos in Nigeria, also tried to engage this issue in the context of the farmers/herdsmen challenges in an almost prophetic concern. We reached out to the National Orientation Agency and held a workshop to explore the issue. More than that, we also focused one of our policy research, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gated Foundation, on the issue of policy solutions to grazing and farming in conflict areas, building on our earlier work of looking at cassava peels as livestock feed. Unfortunately, it was impossible to avert the disastrous orgy of killings that has attended this issue.
Since the beginning of the year, too many people have lost their lives to conflicts, over our failure to turn these asset of human capacity, variety and approaches into the blessings for our country. It is a painful regret that our diversity is being exploited as a platform of grievances and conflict leading to mass killings and not as a driver of excellence.
Bridging leadership is about creating and sustaining collaborative and effective relations by ‘bridging’ different perspectives for solutions. In my words, it is the ability to work across worlds to inspire excellence for a common good. It is no surprise, I think, that we in Nigeria…deeply need this bridging leaders at this fractious and divisive time in our journey.
In Synergos Institute, we have created a model of leadership we call ‘bridging leadership’, used successfully across the world in places like Brazil, Mexico, Philippines and piloted with communities active with our agriculture work in Nigeria.
Bridging leadership is about creating and sustaining collaborative and effective relations by ‘bridging’ different perspectives for solutions. In my words, it is the ability to work across worlds to inspire excellence for a common good. It is no surprise, I think, that we in Nigeria are not only lacking in bridging leaders, especially because we are still in the thrall of representativeness, but we deeply need this bridging leaders at this fractious and divisive time in our journey. In fact, I had the good fortune in 2012 to help design and largely oversee the development of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) strategy under its operational early warning system called CEWARN (Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism). This pioneering work covered eight countries, thousands of people on the ground and hundreds of organisations. Over a year, we worked from the bottom-up to develop an approach with the people and also identify those we called facilitators in the community. The effort continues as designed and developed with sunset in 2019. One thing is for certain, it has contributed a degree of stability to what was a simmering explosion. One of its key outcomes is a cohort of peace facilitators or leaders almost in the same cross-communal bridging role.
We need a new set of intra-community leaders, supported to develop the capacity to hold the national space for collective, not sectional, progress. We, in Nigeria, are now at a critical place to embrace how we can consciously use our diversity. The thing about diversity is, if you do not use it for good, it will become a fount of destruction. It cannot be ignored nor taken for granted. It has to be used for the purpose for which it was created. The most potent foundation will be to develop this new leaders who are imbued, by our common humanity and the commitment to the commonwealth, with the discipline of responsibility for Nigerians, not just ethnic nationalities.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.