Nigeria’s Most Important Questions? By Tolu Ogunlesi
On Saturday America celebrated 239 years since its hard-won independence from Britain. Beyond the fireworks and parades and lofty tributes I think there’s an important lesson for us in Nigeria: that our diversity and our differences should not/never stand in the way of our development.
For all its greatness and the patriotism it inspires in its citizens and even those who are not its citizens, America is not just a very diverse country but also a deeply divided one. The people are divided over their attitudes to God, guns, drugs, the government, abortions, homosexuality, and even the constitution. At the best of times America is a giant riot. And yet that same America still, to a large extent, manages to function for its people: it gives them a highly valuable passport they’re mostly proud of, offers them viable opportunities for honest and legitimate self-advancement, encourages them to take their history seriously; pays serious attention to their complaints and frustrations.
For 25 years the Pew Research Center has been asking Americans to respond – by agreeing or disagreeing – to this survey statement: “I am very patriotic.” Not once has the portion of those agreeing fallen below 85 per cent since the survey started. In other words Americans are an immensely patriotic people. And you don’t even need a survey to spot this; you can see it in the general sense of pride with which Americans carry themselves around the world, like they put this planet together and then summoned the rest of us to it from a distant galaxy where we’d always existed as nothing.
I don’t believe anyone has ever done a similar survey for Nigeria, but I imagine the results would be very different. Nigeria is, like the US, a heterogeneous entity, bringing together hundreds of very different groups of people and compelling them to live together as one. But that’s where the similarities end. On every other score we are doing the wrong things; making it difficult for citizens to feel any special pride in their country. We permit only the most destructive myths to take root in our midst; make no special effort to advance alternative narratives. We summon national conferences and then declare that some issues are off-limits. We allow so-called elders to get away with spouting nonsense just because they carry more grey hair than everyone else. We allow religious leaders to be divisive because no one wants to be accused of challenging a ‘servant of God’. We allow people to take laws into their hands because they believe their god/God has been offended. We create one set of laws for the rich and connected, and another for the rest. We say – and then come to believe – that the problem with Nigeria is some other ethnic group different from ours, even when reality stares us in the face and asserts otherwise. A ruling party works hard to falsely put the blame for Boko Haram on the opposition party, instead of working to unite all Nigerians in singular outrage against the murderous, religion-distorting group. Our capacity for self-delusion and for hypocrisy has become arguably our greatest defining feature as a people.
I am convinced that one place from which to start our journey to greatness would be in making the effort to hone our individual and collective capacity for clear-eyedness and truth-telling. When elder statesmen talk rubbish, we should be able to call them out without the fear of being labelled ‘disrespectful’ (because they’re elders and we’re not) or ‘traitors’ (because they belong to our own ethnic group and we’re not supposed to speak out against ‘our own’). When politicians steal or misbehave or break electoral promises, it shouldn’t matter whether he/she is ‘our son’ or ‘our daughter’. When a civil servant or politician builds or buys a mansion whose worth is not in keeping with his or her earnings, we should learn to ask questions openly. When a newspaper grants a Man-of-the-Year Award to a mediocre governor, we should be bold enough to call it out. It’s the one thing America does very well: proving again and again that no cows – i.e people or beliefs – ought to be too sacred for the slaughter slab.
It would also make sense to start seriously documenting and teaching and propagating our complicated history. If we don’t pay attention to history we’re doomed to repeating it in ever worsening measure. Again that’s one mistake America does its best to avoid. Sometimes we have to remind all those overly enthusiastic promoters of Yoruba-nationhood that until the end of the 19th century, what we today refer to in homogeneous terms as ‘Yorubaland’ was in fact an assortment of tribal groups endlessly fighting and enslaving one another. And remind the promoters of a ‘South-South versus the Hausa-Fulani’ agenda that official documents make it clear that only sixty years ago the Niger Delta’s ethnic groups felt a lot more threatened by the prospects of Igbo domination than of Hausa-Fulani domination.
If we knew and taught our history well enough, a lot of our current agitations and perceptions of marginalisation would cease to make sense, and it is very likely we would become a lot less obsessed with defining ourselves primarily or exclusively on tribal basis. We would also realise that the same way a believable pan-Yoruba identity could successfully emerge from amidst a band of warring city-states (and this as late as the 20th century), and an Igbo identity from hundreds of fairly independent republican clans, there’s the strong possibility that we might in the near future be able to forge a compelling ‘Nigerian’ identity from our assorted and perplexing mix.
The fitting conclusion for this piece would be to state that there are no challenges that Nigeria is facing today that have not been faced by others. Whenever we complain about how Lord Lugard unequally yoked northern and southern Nigeria together in 1914 (an act that one of our founding fathers famously described as “the mistake of 1914”), we should remember Britain; that only last year the frustrations of an oil-producing North (Scotland) that felt ‘marginalised’ by a power-hugging South (England) – a simple reversal of Nigeria’s own geo-political layout – boiled over into an Independence referendum.
We should also note that Belgium and Italy – and even the United States – are in similar straits: all historically divided along impossible-to-ignore north-south lines. Yet these countries have all managed to ensure that their internal contradictions and (sometimes bitter) domestic squabbling do not ever stand in the way of their development. America did not wait to solve its huge racial questions before putting men on the moon, or before taking the first step towards universal health insurance; Belgium found a way to keep running efficiently even when bitter disagreements between its north and south prevent it from having an elected government for 589 days in 2010-11.
There’s of course an argument to be made for how colonialism and then military rule brutally interrupted or distorted the development trajectory in countries like Nigeria (we are after all a “nascent” democracy compared to the US or UK!). But then Indonesia and Brazil show up to challenge us. Ethnically complicated like we are, and bearing similar legacies of colonialism and military rule, they yet manage to flaunt human development indices and manufacturing capabilities that make us look like a sample from the Middle Ages.
Our politicians and intellectuals need to work harder at getting us to discuss these things. While we will never be able to stop the minority blocs of ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ from creating and spreading their beloved brands of inciting messaging, the rest of us can at least try to drown them out by focusing on the far more important questions. Like this one: “How do we carry on the work of nut-and-bolts development – electricity, roads, schools, hospitals, efficient ports, etc – even while trying to figure out a way to live together in spite of our ethnic, religious and political differences?”
Follow me on Twitter: @toluogunlesi