The great writer and world-renowned author, Professor Chinua Achebe in a small book he published in 1983, titled, The Trouble with Nigeria (Fourth Dimension Publishers), called our attention to an important aspect of Nigeria’ founding story. According to him, what is really interesting, is that, we as a nation, have not been asking the question:
“How did we as a nation come to be drawn in the first place to concepts like “unity and faith” in our coat-of-arms with their potentialities for looseness? Why did we not think, for example, of such concepts as Justice and Honesty, which cannot be so easily directed to undesirable ends? Justice never prompts the question: Justice for what? Neither does Honesty and Truth or Freedom.”
“Is it possible that as a nation we instinctively chose to extol easy virtues which are amenable to the manipulation of hypocrites, rather than difficult ones which would have imposed the strain of seriousness upon us?”
This brings leads to the fundamental question of the present article: ‘Is this submission of Achebe, not really one of the founding legacies and hidden mythologies of our fragile nation, Nigeria?’
The overriding question is: why has the dreamed leadership been eluding Nigeria? Could it be that digging into our founding story, such as that of the use of concepts of “unity and faith” in the nation’s coat-of-arms could help in providing us some answers to the question? However, without attempting to offer exhaustive answer to this question, permit me to explore the dimension of Nigeria’s narrative story as a nation-state – the coat-of-arms’ concepts of “unity and faith”, and the crisis of leadership in the land today.
Our modern society has been witnessing leadership crisis as it is infested, with a kind of deceptive and corrupt leadership that prioritizes evil against a perceived enemy or the hated group, thus creating conflicts in the social order for no just reason. In theological terms, a situation of this kind, calls for the conversion of the human heart for reconciliation with God, with oneself, with the neighbor, and with the created world. St. Paul explains it better in his ‘Hymn of Creation’ in honor of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ:
“God has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the Son that he loves, and in him we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:13-15).
This implies also that the human person is at the center of the causes of tensions, conflicts and violence both in one’s own life and the society. However, the human being also thirsts for reconciliation. The thirst of reconciliation includes surfacing and engaging in dialogue all the sources of conflicts and violence in the society. Apart from the direct act of the individual, there are some notable sources of violence and conflicts in the founding story of any nation, including ours, Nigeria. Nowadays, scholars are beginning to argue that the narrative story we have built around those concepts of the coat-of-arms, our choice and defense of them in spite of all odds since political independence in 1960, perhaps, could be part of our problem. Because in all these years, we have used much of our energy trying to defend those concepts of nation’s coat-of-arms more than we have spent in saving and protecting the lives and property of citizens and even Nigeria itself from total eclipse as a nation-state.
Since the dawn of our modern history, we have built and cultivated a historical baggage, a kind of national psychic and cultural mythologies which prioritize the permanence of these concepts of “unity and faith” of the coat-of-arms as the normative narrative of Nigeria as a nation-state. In spite of all its negativity, we, as a nation, have refused to pay attention to the glaring fact that the narrative behind the concepts of “unity and faith” in our coat-of-arms have continued, time without number, to encourage and promote violence in the nation, even on the part of those entrusted with the mantle of leadership against the citizens.
In this case, it is an undeniable fact, that the coat-of-arms form part of those cultural factors of exaggerated ethno-religious elements and bigotry, tendencies that foster violence and conflicts in Nigeria till date. On their own, these concepts of the nation’s coat-of-arms, are good in themselves, but as often happens, human beings have the tendency of turning good things into something undesirable. Thus, it is still the human person that is responsible for acts of violence, since only him, and him only has the capacity and liberty to manipulate those concepts and elements in culture or religion that foster and legitimize violence. In other words, the nation’s concepts “unity and faith” of nation’s coat-of-arms just as elements of cultures and religion, could also be sources of violence because they facilitate and legitimize individuals, groups, and institutions to demean and subjugate people. The nature of these concepts, cultural and religious elements and their potentials for negative and unilateral power resides in a people’s capacity and freedom to manipulate them for ulterior motives, namely, lust for power and domination by the privileged minority.
As I explained in an earlier article, the term violence does not have a standard or set definition. Ideas of what constitutes violence can vary not only between different societies, but also between different groups within the same society at different times and in different situations. However, for some authors, violence means every action of the human person (including the use of words in speech or writing), or lack of action of persons or cultures (including customs, institutions, structures) that are insensitive to and oppressive of human persons who have been created according to the divine image and likeness.
Furthermore, violence involves force or violation. It may be physical, emotional, verbal, theological, cognitive, sexual, visual, institutional, structural, economic, political, social, ecological. It can be sensational or hidden, intermittent or ongoing, intentional or unconscious, but there is still the violation of the victim. Violence is not about damaging or destroying things. It is about abusing people. The tragedy is that it lowers their self-esteem, self-confidence; they experience a sense of powerlessness and subjugation. Violence crushes the spirit of people and makes them submissive to violators for their purpose. For instance, Jesus Christ describes the effects of violence in poignant terms: “Fear him not who kills the body but he who kills the spirit as well” (Matthew 10:28). In the words of the psalmist: “An enemy is in deadly pursuit, crushing me into the ground … My spirit is faint, and within me my heart is numb with fear” (Psalms 143:3-4).
Psychologists have different views about the origins of violence. Some attribute violence to innate human predisposition. Some assume culture is its root. Yet for some, violence is instinctual and inborn; violators project their own inner fears and inadequacies on to other people and society. Some authors would opt for a Freudian frustration hypothesis by claiming that violence is due to the constrictions of civilized society.
However, the renowned Australian socio-cultural anthropologist and theologian Gerald Arbuckle, emphasizes the interplay of culture and power as the cause of violence. For him and some other social anthropologists, violence is preeminently collective rather than individual, usually culturally structured and always culturally interpreted. This cultural anthropological approach focuses not on individual violent behavior, but on identifying entrenched processes in society’s social concepts, systems and cultures that foster or allow violence to occur. In this context, the word power means the capacity of an individual, a concept or culture to influence others. It is both positive and negative. It is positive when it directs people and institutions to act in favor of human dignity and justice. It is negative or abusive when it dominates, manipulates, or unduly coerces others. Arbuckle uses the metaphor of unilateral and reciprocal power to explain the distinction between the positive and negative influence of culture and power on the people. Power is unilateral when, for example, a person (e.g., a freedom fighter or a terrorist), group (e.g., in the face of domineering power) or culture refuses to receive the influence of others (and the domineering group or culture being insensitive to the other party) rendering dialogue impossible. In the case of reciprocal power, there is openness to receive the influence of others and, a feeling of sensitivity to the dignity and culture of the other party by the domineering party. Nonviolent movements and resistance groups exercise both positive and reciprocal power.
The bottom-line of all these, is that national and cultural concepts such as symbols, myths, and rituals generate cultural feeling in the people and when such feeling is not well channeled to foster co-existence among people of diverse cultural backgrounds and other ethnic-groups, it could lead to some uncontrollable consequences of which conflict or violence is one of them. This is why in civilized countries today, people with history of religious bigotry, entrenched ethnic-hatred, or racism, are not elected nor allowed to govern, no matter how populist and democratically appealing the person may present himself during electioneering campaign. The behavior of former President Mosi of Egypt of the Islamic Brotherhood after his election, taught Egypt this bitter lesson. Because, whatever happens, once these religious bigots and extremists get hold of power and government machinery, heavens are let loose towards pursuing their narrow interests guided by the archaic mythological ideals, whatever that may be. They will begin by marginalizing all others, ethnic and religious groups that do not share their founding mythology and history. They will make sure that the sensitive ministerial slots and key governmental positions are distributed only among their own people of the same religion, language, culture and mentality. They will begin to re-connect and reestablish contacts with radical groups and extremist states, nations and organizations that share the same mythology as theirs and have been showing some interest in controlling the leadership of the country.
All this shows that societal concepts and cultural elements contain an inner power to facilitate and legitimate people to be violent. Is this not the case with Nigeria’s coat-of-arms concepts of “unity and Faith”.
Nigeria’s Coat-of-Arms Concepts of ‘Unity and Faith’
Back to Chinua Achebe’s critical book, The Trouble with Nigeria. Again, the most commonly enunciated of Nigeria’s understanding of her national psychic and objective as a nation-state is found in the Coat-of-Arms’ concepts, ‘unity and faith.’ Achebe asked the question: “How valid is this notion of unity as an absolute good? … so important is it to us that it stands on our coat-of-arms and so sacred that the blood of millions of our countrymen, women and children was shed between 1967 and 1970 to uphold it against secessionist forces.” Achebe answers himself as follows: “Quite clearly it is nonsense. Unity can be as good as the purpose for which it is desired. Obviously, it is good for good people to unite to build a school or a hospital or a nation. But supposing a group of other people get together in order to rob a bank. Their unity is deemed undesirable. That is a kind of unity lawyers would call by the unflattering name of conspiracy.” According to Achebe, we cannot extol the virtues of unity without first satisfying ourselves that the end to which the unity is directed, is unimpeachable. The same applies to our celebration of faith. Again, faith is as good as the object on which it reposes. For religious people faith in God is a desirable way of life; for humanists, it is acceptable to believe in the intrinsic worth of man. But what about faith in money, or faith in talismans and fetish? What of the type of faith professed by the extremist religious bigots that have no respect for human life of those that don’t share the same faith with them? So again, faith is all right provided it is to be placed on something acceptable. It cannot be good in itself. Before we are persuaded to have faith we must first ascertain the nature and worth of the receiver of our faith. We must ask the crucial question: Faith in what? Just as in the matter of unity, we must ask: Unity to what end? In other words, virtues like unity and faith are not absolute but conditional on their satisfaction of other purposes. Their social validity depends on the willingness or ability of citizens to ask the searching question. ‘This calls for a habit of mental rigor, for which, unfortunately most of us today, are not famous.’
A nation’s cultural and national concepts shape people’s emotional reactions to the world around them, events, and things. It permeates the deepest recesses of the human group, and individuals, in particular their feelings. This is the reason why some define culture not as “what people do,” but rather as “what people feel about what they do.” When one is re-identified with the founding story of his ethnic-group or nation, he becomes immediately and spontaneously re-energized and determined not to be intimidated into inaction. National ethos and founding stories help people to survive in the midst of a hostile environment. They would argue that if the heroes of their nation, including the deceased brave members of their families, had faced and endured incredible difficulties, so could they. With such determination, they could stand up to respond with courage, self-reliance, and resourcefulness to the demands of the strange and fear-evoking culture around them. Their self-esteem would not be crushed. They will not fall victim to the deadly chaos of self-pity.
However, and on the other side of the coin, ill-motivated and ill-conceived national ethos and founding stories, more significantly, breed individuals or rather a leadership driven by the negative tendencies of societal and cultural mythologies that wear a face of masculinity. Its work begins with the military. Once this type of persons take over the leadership of the country, the first victims will be the military personnel from other ethnic-groups, especially, those from the perceived non-conformist ethnic-entity. The military membership of people from other ethnic groups are reduced to zero while that of people from the ruling group is multiplied. Inexperienced and unqualified individuals are promoted to high ranks without due process or respect to the standing rule of law and order in the military.
Ironically, however, it is our new “intellectual” elite, who today debunk merit for immediate sectional advantage, just as some “nationalist” leaders in the 1950s forsook nationalism in favor of quick returns to tribalism. To paraphrase Chinua Achebe once more, whereas tribalism might win enough votes to install a reactionary jingoist in a tribal ghetto, the cult of mediocrity will bring the wheels of modernization grinding to a halt throughout the land. All you need is your religious and ethnic identity, and a recommendation letter from a religious or traditional leader of your town or just a big-man out there from the powerful ruling ethno-religious group, to be enlisted into the army or offered employment in government institutions and parastatals. All key-positions, Service-Chiefs, General Officers and regional commanders are filled by personnel from the same domineering ethnic-group and people of questionable religious and ethnic bias. This is felt in all sections of the military: army, navy, air force, police, customs, immigrations, prisons, etc. It applies to all government ministries, boards of parastatals and other institutions. People will begin to experience a new form of reign of terror even in a supposedly democratically elected leadership. Dissenting voices, media, churches, human rights groups, etc. are suppressed and intimidated while, heinous extra-judicial killings and torture of innocent citizens will continue to grow.
Again, in most cases, the media is an accomplice. The mainline media would shift to deceptive narrative in favor of the wrongdoer and his junta. The media will be feeding the public with false news against the victims of maladministration, and would revert to praise-singing the virtues of the government in power while the victims are twice victimized. There will be no condemnation too. Everybody seems to have been intimidated. Everything is presented as being in order.
This has been the experience of Nigeria as a nation-state since independence in 1960, but especially, after the brutal Civil War (1967-1970). Even though, from the happenings of things in that country since the end of the brutal war, the unity they claimed they fought for is still a nightmare. Sometimes we forget that we cannot have unity without justice. The same applies to peace! There will be no peace without justice. A nation is better founded on sublime virtues such as justice, truth, freedom and honesty other than ill-motivated unity and faith.
That is the implications for Nigeria’s leadership today of the coat-of-arms concepts of “unity and faith”, which we have explored in this short article. Some authors have warned that, as long as the domineering groups continue to contribute to the volatile atmosphere, and unless the injustices are addressed, the world can expect more violence and protests, not only from the aggrieved indigenous ethnic-nationalities but also from other aggrieved groups and peoples. The rage of “these protesters and agitators” often has its roots in past and present injustices. Until the injustices are openly acknowledged and addressed, it is impossible to begin dialogue and reconciliation.
The desire to suppress the past can be motivated not only by the desire to avoid pain or to achieve reconciliation among the different peoples but also by a desire to avoid responsibility. Defending mistakes is not a reliable strategy, because, in the long run a failure to attend to these issues in the present may store up problems for the future. The most reliable strategy is sincere dialogue with a view to healing and reconciliation. There should be courage to address sincerely and objectively the past wrongs done against the aggrieved groups for peace to reign today. Otherwise, the negative aspects of the nation’s coat-of-arms concepts of “unity and faith” will continue to haunt us until thy kingdom come!
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.