Unity is not a big word. It does not present any lexical challenge. Even a toddler can tell what it means. It is only President Muhammadu Buhari that is making unity sound like something else. Let’s visit the dictionary and by extension the owners of the English language for clarification. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘unity’ as follows: “the state of being in agreement and working together; the state of being joined together to form one unit.”
By way of deepening the definition, the dictionary mentions, “European unity” which to me, at this time of Brexit and a resurgent Russia, is not very appropriate. There are three other listings but the first answers the question. Following this, there should not be any confusion as to the exact meaning of ‘unity.’ Just add, unity means complete absence of cross-purposes.
Having defined unity, what is it that President Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo are talking about the unity of Nigeria? They say, if I have heard correctly, that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable? On its own, that statement is in order. Things can either be negotiable or non-negotiable. It is the underlying dialectics that is faulty; in fact, very faulty. Negotiation or absence of it presupposes a state of reality. The unity that is not negotiable is not even available. How do you then stop negotiations on something that is not on the table?
Instead, what is in abundance in Nigeria is disunity and there will be real content to engage negotiators if what is to be bargained is the disunity of Nigeria. In fact, it would have been a perfect syntax and less of randomness or semantic noise if the Presidency had insisted on the non-negotiability of the disunity of Nigeria, rather than otherwise. Where is the unity that is not to be negotiated? Is it the unity between ethnic nationalities in the vast Guinea Savannah belt of Nigeria and Fulani settlers and invaders? Or is it the unity between Christians and Moslems or the unity between North and South? Or for that matter, is it the unity between a rent-seeking political and aristocratic class and the ordinary people of Nigeria?
Let me warn that the residency does not have any poetic licence to create its own meaning from well-defined concepts. Its use of the word ‘unity’ to describe socio-political inter-relationships in Nigeria is an abuse to say the least. If by some modern day Pentecostal miracle, my forebear, the one they call Osovwah in my village were to resurrect this moment, he would not be at home with any of the political taxonomies of the day. He would not understand, for instance, anything called Nigeria, South-South Geopolitical Zone, Delta State or even Ughelli North local government area.
The farthest he would recall would be that his own settlement, Oghara, is part of a socio-cultural and cartographic unit called Agbarha. And at the very best he would recall that the Owhowha progenitor from whom the Ogor, Ughelli, Agbarha and Orogun components were infused into the larger Urhobo group and that would be all. Anything more would confuse him because he did know about all the forced territorial expansions and integrations that culminated in the dubious amalgamation deal that invented Nigeria in 1914, which the President does not want renegotiated.
What is even more worrisome is the inability or better still, unwillingness of the vice president, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, the logic master, to rise gallantly to point a clear path to follow. He is hiding behind official equivocation and needless sophistry to reduce the big debate on a workable federation to an English Language comprehension test. As if standing before a bunch of impervious students in a lecture theatre at the University of Languages, Prof Osinbajo has eloquently explained the difference between political restructuring and economic restructuring and how Nigerians have muddled up both concepts in their uninformed agitation for a better country. From his vintage pedestal, he has done all the analysis and settled the question of which between the two kinds of restructuring is more suitable for Nigeria – economic restructuring.
Being a teacher, Osibanjo is just saying in many words, as in a classroom situation, what his principal, an ex-general, has said in two letters – NO! If here is where we are, the prospect is real that Nigeria will fail irretrievably. We have been enforcing ‘unity’ which has not endured and there is actually no danger in adopting the second option of negotiated unity. It is only a trial; it is not going to cost anything or hurt anyone in real terms and we can even return to status quo if the trial fails.
To get the perspective right, maybe we should ask General Yakubu Gowon to say how much he used in terms of men and material to enforce the unity of Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. And come to think of it, after spending so much, we are still here today discussing how to procure unity. Are we crazy or what? That is not even all. I also think the huge budgets that have been spent to quell periodic insurrections by quarters less comfortable with the unity that Gowon procured on the battlefields some 50 years, can be ascertained for better insight into the real cost of staging the Nigeria’s Unity Concert. The cost is still running.
Truth is that we love free lunch in Nigeria. We want results without efforts. That is why we are hoping to eat delicious omelet without seeking to engage in the attendant messy task of breaking raw eggs. To put it plainly, there is no enduring forced unity anywhere in the world. Even the British, in taking over our land and resources centuries ago, negotiated. They offered Native and Local Authorities to achieve a buy in. And when it became too hot to continue with the subjugation of the people under the trick of Indirect Rule, they pulled out altogether and returned to their country in 1960.
Empires, which thrive on forced unity are not known to thrive on steady glory for too long. The Roman Empire expired because of such inherent contradictions; so was the British Empire, which at its twilight had to rework itself into the (British) Commonwealth of Nations to avoid losing everything. Closer home, all the tropical and Western Sudan empires of Benin, Oyo, Songhai, Asante, Mali and Kanem Bornu crumbled because they took the aberration of a forced existence for a norm.
In recent history, empires have crumbled too. At some time, in fact just about two decades ago, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under the hegemony of Russia controlled about a third of the global geopolitical space. But when the weight of the union became too heavy for its weak foundational structure, it had used the twin instrumentality of Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) to shed the excess weight and re-emerge as the Republic of Russia and many other independent states in Eastern Europe.
Still around the Baltic region, there once existed two mini-empires called Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. While the former realised early enough the inevitability of bargain in achieving ultimate purpose, the latter leaned on the futility of the dynamics of a forced unity. The result was that one peacefully attained a new understanding without any material cost, while the other expended hundreds of thousands of men and women and near total decimation of its critical infrastructure in a most senseless war to attain the same understanding.
At all times, the human spirit is indomitable. It seeks to be free; it cannot be destroyed just as it cannot be put under perpetual conquest. This is the point to consider in the ongoing conversation on restructuring of Nigeria. We have a rich history to tap from. However, history can only teach while the choice to imbibe its lessons remains perfect freedom. And one key lesson here is to agree that the unity of Nigeria was not made in heaven; it was decreed here on earth in 1914 by men and for that reason, subject to review by men with a view to attaining higher happiness.
Abraham Ogbodo is a columnist with Guardian Newspapers, where this article was first published.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.