Senator Bola Tinubu recently told the ethnic champions beating the drums of separatism that we are better off being together. He echoed President Buhari who said something similar. Bishop Hassan Kukah also chipped in. Taken together they sought to persuade those who want to put an end to Nigeria as we know it, to have a rethink, moderate their rhetoric and sheathe their swords and help the country go on as one entity.
The three men were preaching to the converted. Nigerians have always been persuaded that being Nigerians beats being anything else on the African continent. They have paid some heavy individual, ethnic and group prices, including the death and destruction of the 30-month civil war, to firm up the reality of this. The problem, therefore, is not their lack of appreciation of the benefits of being citizens of a large and populous country that shelters everyone from the harsh weather of our quite often incendiary local politics and the roguish behaviour of our national economy; rather they feel a sense of abandonment and alienation by the Nigerian state and feel persuaded by the ethnic champions that they are better off without staying together.
The Nigerian state has abandoned the people to the mercy of sundry criminals who have become the lords of the land, kidnapping and killing where and when they choose. The state looks on helplessly. It is difficult to explain why the Nigerian state with its monopoly of the protective instruments for the safety of the people is in such a sorry, helpless state today.
We do not need the courage to call a spade a spade before admitting that our political leaders, not the people, are our problems; partly because they want power without responsibility or the responsible exercise of power; and partly because they seem to cynically ignore why we instituted governments. We instituted governments to which we surrendered part of our rights to gain greater rights enforced and protected under the supreme law of the land, the constitution; it is why we have a president and state governors to see how the rights granted to the people are exercised and protected.
What is happening is the inevitable manifestation of our increasing disenchantment with our political leaders in khaki or agbada who took and still take the country and its people for granted. Nigeria may be too big to fail but it is not too big to be in permanent conflict with itself and thus a permanent candidate for its progressive retardation in its social and economic development efforts. The giant of Africa watches as the pygmies of Africa overtake it in their social and economic development; instead of our rich country becoming richer in accordance with the natural order of human development, it is becoming poorer and poorer. It baffles the rest of the world.
The big people now indulge themselves in the unproductive labour of weaving and clothing themselves with conspiracy theories to explain away what is happening to our country in our 61 years of independence. I hear the farcical argument that what fellow Nigerians are doing to their own brothers and sisters is at the instigation of foreign and local enemies of the Buhari administration. It is normal for a country in trouble to look for scapegoats. But this conspiracy theory cannot cover the fact that the Nigerian state under Buhari has failed to protect the people from death and destruction. It would amount to stretching credulity beyond the pale for anyone, armed with a primitive conspiracy theory, to suggest that the unprecedented insecurity, the bandits that have become the scourge of young students in the northern parts of the country are but servants of the enemies of the government; nor would it wash this late in the day for anyone to carry the banner proclaiming that Boko Haram, the insurgents that took on the Nigerian state in 2009 and has bested it in the war against it, is proof positive that Nigeria has enemies bent on bringing it to its knees. Conspiracy theories are easy to weave but they are unproductive and can only help an administration that chooses to live in denial.
The tragedy of our national situation is that we should be a much better country than this because we have been through the crucibles of nation-building and should have emerged stronger and more united. If after the high price we paid to keep the country one; if after all the traumatic years of military dictatorship with the many experiments on nation-building; if after 22 years of democracy, the loudest sound in the country today is the jarring sound of separatism rather than the sonorous sound of a country united in the common pursuit of the happiness and the collective ambitions of its citizens, then it means that we missed both the right path and the right formula for making one nation with one destiny out of this rainbow collection of ethnic groups.
Those who think that national unity could be forged on the anvils of laws alone are wrong. National unity can only be built through a process anchored on an agreed formula of entitlements, the rights of citizens and the duty of the state to its citizens. Those who take it for granted that the locus of our political power is less important than the cynical distribution of crumbs from the high table are also wrong. We are still a nation of different ethnic groups with each ethnic group actively pursuing its own political and economic interests.
Our country is contending with two critical demons – the demon of entitlement and the demon of a sense of denial and or injury. Every ethnic group, no matter how small it might be, recognises that it is entitled by right to political leadership and the right to fully participate in the economic opportunities that exist in the country at every level – local government, state and federal. None wants to be denied this entitlement by reason of its numerical weakness or by the faith of the majority of its people. If, by an act of omission or commission, it is denied its rights, it feels and nurses a sense of injury.
To be fair, there is nothing really new here. We have been contending with these demons since independence. They have been the sources of our national problems often referred to as the equitable distribution of the national cake. It imposes on our leaders the obligation to properly manage our diversities such that the right of every ethnic group is duly recognised and protected by the Nigerian state – always a tricky thing in multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations. Not too long ago, we resorted to marginalisation as evidence that some ethnic groups cornered our common wealth and fenced out other ethnic groups. The current sense of denial and alienation logically grew out of this and, as I see it, a more vicious contention with the demons of entitlement and the demons of the sense of denial and or injury.
It is easy to suggest that the way out would be for the president to adopt the formula of an inclusive rather than an exclusive administration, in which every ethnic group has a chance at the watering hole. It may be a simple formula but its implementation is not that simple. It demands a deep and sincere appreciation of the nuances of our diversities in tribes, tongues and faith. It is easy for a leader with an open heart and who is willing to listen to others to tap their wisdom, to appreciate these nuances and commit to what holds the ethnic groups together. A leader with a provincial mindset, who is self-contained in his own wisdom and therefore, intolerant and contemptuous of other views and voices has problems managing our diversities. This seems to be at the roots of the problem we are facing.
Yes, we are better off together. Sure, no one is going away. And therein lies the huge challenge. The politicians must give effect to our togetherness by ending the sense of alienation and abandonment, ensuring our security, ending the rule of criminals, enthroning justice and fairness and commit to making some necessary adjustments in the rules of our togetherness in a federal system, such as restructuring.