In 2010 John Campbell, the United States’ Ambassador to Nigeria (from May 12 2004 to July 19, 2007) published a book he entitled, ‘Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.’ A second edition of that book was published in 2013. Campbell, who earlier was a counsellor in the US Embassy in Nigeria between 1988 and 1990, is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, which also published the book. He is generally respected as an authority on Nigerian affairs. Earlier in 2001, the American journalist Karl Maier had published a book with a similar dispiriting title, ‘This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria’. The blurb to Karl Maier’s book declared: “To understand Africa, one must understand Nigeria, and few Americans understand Nigeria better than Karl Maier.”
What can be gleaned from the above titles, from two Americans regarded as experts on Nigeria, is that they believed that, at least at the time the two books were written, that Nigeria was sitting on a precipice – or just about collapsing. Surprisingly nearly twenty years after Karl Maier’s book and nearly ten years after Campbell’s, Nigeria still perches precariously on that precipice – making hanging on the cliff Nigeria’s comfort zone. In fact it can be argued that since the amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 (when phrases like the ‘mistakes of 1914 has come to the fore’, or ‘Nigeria is a mere geographic expression’, were common – capped by the Nigeria-Biafra war), the idea of the Nigeria-nation has remained contested. Today a mantra in the Southern part of the country is ‘restructuring’. In its earlier incarnation it was ‘sovereign national conference’ and later ‘national conference’. Basically the proponents have been calling for a forum where Nigerians or representative of the federating units could meet to decide if they still want to live together and if so, under what arrangements.
As Nigeria celebrated its 59th independence anniversary on Tuesday, October 1, 2019 I feel the title of Campbell’s book best encapsulates how far we have come. We have just been dancing on the precipice, never falling off as often feared and never moving out of it to chart a course away from the movement without motion that one often witnesses when one is on the brink. Two germane questions are: why has the country not imploded despite threats of secession from all the major ethnic groups at different times? And what is really the trouble with Nigeria?
While there appears to be a consensus that the availability of crude oil and the competitive rent-seeking from it by the various ethnic and regional factions of the elite is the glue that holds the country together, analysts diverge on why they think Nigeria has remained on the brink. For John Campbell for instance, pervasive “patronage and corrupt behaviour fuelled by oil money is a root cause of Nigeria’s political and economic sclerosis.” This is no different from the argument of those who believe that corruption is the main trouble with Nigeria.
I respectfully disagree with this position, which I think is akin to elevating the institutional manifestation of a problem to its defining characteristic. I believe the fundamental problem of the country is the crisis in the country’s nation-building process. Nation-building, defined as the deliberate use of state instruments to wield together the various nationalities that make up the country into the feeling that they are one or ought to be one, has simply stalled. One of the consequences is that virtually every part of the country complains of being ‘marginalized’, triggering in the process what I elsewhere called a ‘de-Nigerianization’ process – Nigerians delinking from the state and constructing meanings in chosen primordial identities, often with the Nigerian state as an enemy. There is in every part of this country an institutionalized memory of hurt and being unjustly treated. Politics becomes anarchic because of the pervasive fear that any group that captures power will use it to privilege its in-group while disadvantaging others. In such a situation, distrust and suspicion become deeply ingrained, with no individual or institution enjoying universal legitimacy across the fault lines. And precisely because of these, any solution thrown at any of the country’s numerous problems quickly becomes part of the problem.
How do we re-start the nation-building process? It is unhelpful for anyone to preach unity or patriotism as the solution because these two concepts are not neutral in the struggle for power and lucre by the various regional and ethnic factions of the elite. In fact every form of unity or patriotism is sustained by an underlying power configuration and those who feel disadvantaged by that configuration will continue to oppose the form of unity or patriotism preached by those who are privileged by it.
While I believe that the capacity of ‘true federalism’ (essentially a return to the system of inter-governmental relations in the immediate independence period) to be the magic elixir it is made out to be by its proponents is very exaggerated, shunning such conversations, (especially as it has become an article of faith in the southern part of the country), will only mean refusing to give a listening ear to a demand by a huge portion of the populace. Such will only accelerate the de-Nigerianization process.
Those who contend that the arguments in the restructuring debate are legislative matters are both right and wrong: they are right because the issues in restructuring require constitutional amendments which cannot be effected without the National Assembly. But they are also wrong because the composition of the National Assembly and the perceived skewed structure of the country are among the grouses held by the proponents of restructuring. Many of the proponents of ‘geographic restructuring’ in fact argue that the structure of the country as presently constituted gives the North unfair advantage in revenue allocation and politics including in the membership of the National Assembly. This means that to insist that restructuring is a ‘purely’ legislative matter is to refuse to give even a listening ear to the grouses of such people which will be quite unhelpful.
There is no country in the world where critical issues are left alone to parliament or even to majorities – which is why we have such notions as ‘referendum’, ‘concurrent majorities’, ‘zoning’ and ‘power rotation’. Similarly no society is structured anywhere in the world in such a way that it is driven by unmediated meritocracy – without some measures to protect those left behind, or those who have suffered serious historical injustices or have other forms of systemic disadvantages. In this sense the argument that restructuring is purely a legislative matter is ahistorical and unhelpful in the search for a Nigeria-nation. Those who also believe that democracy is simply about the majority having their way also miss the point.
As Nigeria turned into a 59 year old that has refused to grow up, I feel it is time for the government to give a listening ear to the agitations for restructuring. I believe such a conversation should involve all the stakeholders so that the fears and hopes of all the constituent parts of the country are factored into whatever agreements will be reached. I believe that once the stakeholders from all parts of the country agree on what is to be restructured and the timelines for doing so, it will become easier for the members of the National Assembly to move in and do the ‘needful’ (apologies Senator Stella Odua). Unless we are able to confront our fears, Nigeria may continue with its macabre dance on the brink.