The other day, the Catholic Archbishop emeritus of Lagos, Cardinal Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, reminded the people of this nation once more, that, “Nigeria is a sinking ship being navigated by pirates. There is need to take urgent steps to rescue Nigeria from the hands of brigands. Not to do so would amount to flirting with violence. … The anger of the people may lead to a violent uprising whose consequences we cannot foresee. Let us step back from the road to bloodshed.” (Nigeriaworld.com, July 28, 2020).
Surely, Cardinal Okogie is not saying anything new from that which we know already about Nigeria as a “sinking ship.” We have heard it said several times from those our courageous young people, social and political activists, who are clamoring for justice and freedom as well as from those of them agitating for self-determination through referendum of their oppressed indigenous populations in this British contraption called Nigeria.
We have also heard similar sentiments echoed by different Pan-Socio-Cultural Groups from various ethnic-nationalities of the Old Middle Belt, Western and Eastern regions of the country. The same also from other political and human rights groups and movements across the land, especially those of them pressurizing the present federal government for restructuring or devolution of Nigeria’s political system. The aim of which is to avoid further bloodbath and to save the soul of the country from the sinking ship, Cardinal Okogie is warning us about!
Be it as it may, Cardinal Okogie’s adding his moral voice as the most respected elderly Christian religious leader alive in the country today, must not be underestimated. The failure on the part of those on the corridors of power to listen to such a moral voice like that of Cardinal Okogie, may spell doom for the nation.
This is because, nowadays many people are beginning to voice it out loudly that the Nigerian politician is the problem with the country. What is worrisome to every Tom, Dick and Harry, who cares to know, is the unwillingness of the Nigerian ruling class and elites, especially, the present federal government to do the needful, save the people and the land from further bloodbath, violence, terrorism, poverty, and endemic corruption that have become like a second nature of the geographical space called Nigeria? This is the problem with Nigeria.
Again, in spite of the infamous slogan used during the Nigeria-Biafra War by General Yakubu Gowon’s military junta, “To Keep Nigeria One is a Task that must be done”, a slogan that led to the Biafra pogroms and the killings of an estimated 3.5 million Biafrans during the war (1967-1970), the so-called ‘unity’ has continued to elude the Nigerian state.
This is also despite having enshrined the word “unity” as the first word in Nigeria’s coat-of-arms’ “Unity and faith, Peace and Progress.” The painful thing is that none of these four words in Nigeria’s coat-of arm has really translated into concrete reality in the life of the Nigerian state itself and its citizens, sixty years after political independence from Britain. The words have remained only on papers, nothing more nothing less.
The reason for this is simple. You cannot achieve unity of purpose in a nation state where its diverse ethnic-nationalities do not share ‘unity of spirit.’ Neither do they share the same ‘value systems and cultural affinity.’ No nation can achieve national unity or unity of purpose in nation-building, where its diverse ethnic-nationalities and people do not have shared value systems, philosophy of life and cultural affinity; where its leaders are ingrained in primitive religious and ethnic bigotry, ethnic-hate and resentment of one another because of differences of ethnicity and religion. Where the people themselves do not put into practice, the gospel injunction on ‘love of my neighbor’, as Jesus Christ teaches us. In a nation state founded on ethnic-hate or resentment of a particular group or more, ‘national unity’ and unity of purpose in nation-building, will continue to be elusive.
The Bible teaches us that the New Covenant, love of God and neighbor is ingrained not on stones or marbles (or even on coat-of-arms) made by man as in the Old Covenant Law of Moses, but rather in the hearts and souls of believers in Christ Jesus. Thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit to the believers and the Church by the Risen Christ.
In other words, national unity need to flow from within, the hearts and souls of citizens and not from without, nor from the “coat-of-arms.” Not even from the political slogans and intimidations of politicians or dictators. “Unity” is something spiritual. For it to have a meaning, it must spring from the ‘spirit’, from the hearts and souls of the citizenry.
The Lord Jesus himself, during his earthly life, often warns his disciples that there were things they could not understand and that they would have to await the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:12-13). Pope Francis speaking on this, reminds us that if we look more closely at the biblical teaching, we find that the locus of this unity, is within ourselves, ever threatened by fragmentation and breakdown. “If hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace [and unity] in society” (Pope Francis, “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (2013), n. 229).
Unity is not about negotiated settlements but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the spirit can harmonize every diversity so that each group of people finds a way of living fully their humanity and dignity in freedom and love of neighbor.
The Problem with Nigeria
Chinua Achebe, the doyen of African literature, in his small book, titled, “The Trouble with Nigeria” (1983), nailed the cause of the problem with Nigeria, on the ‘head of a common enemy’, namely, the failure of leadership in the country. It is the failure of Nigerian ruling class and elites to be promotors of love of neighbor and not umpires of clannishness, divisiveness, ethnic-hate and religious bigotry in the country. Achebe made this clarion call, taking cognizance of the fact that post-war Nigeria, since 1970, was founded on ethnic-hate and Igbo resentment. Today, not only Igbos, but other indigenous ethnic-groups in the Middle Belt and Southern states of the country are feeling marginalized and oppressed by the government of the day. The chicken has come back to roost. We are now all victims of Nigerian state and its failed leadership.
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” (Chinua Achebe, “The Trouble with Nigeria”, Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu 1983, p. 1. Emphasis mine).
To the above, we must add that the problem with the country is the failure of its ruling class and elites, since independence in 1960 to date, to work for the regeneration of the geographical space called Nigeria, based on African cultural values, and to save the country from the past colonial trappings we are battling with today. The problem with Nigeria is the inability of the Nigerian ruling class and elites to refashion the country based on African worldview, culture, value system, philosophy of life and to modernize the traditional system of societal organization, which we inherited from our ancestors before the European colonial invasion of Africa.
The Nigerian problem is the inability of the ruling class and elites to return to the founding story of the Nigerian state, to the drawing board, to work towards fine-tuning the inherited colonial political system and arbitrary geopolitical configuration of diverse and often mutually hostile ethnic-nationalities logged together into one nation-state by the British colonial masters. The challenge today is how to make our desired new society out of the present Nigerian state to reflect the real needs of African peoples that inhabit that geographical space. To modernize it based on the African philosophy of life, cultural values and matrix.
The failure of leadership in Nigeria since independence in 1960 till date, to do the needful in this regard, is the major reason for what we have been passing through in the country all these years, including the genocidal Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970), and the present-day political crisis, described by Cardinal Okogie as a sign of a “sinking ship.” Until something is done to arrest this situation, there is no end in view of the present political imbroglio and suffering of the people in that British contraption called Nigeria.
Revisiting Nigeria’s Founding Story
As I wrote elsewhere in one of my previous articles, the common assumption is that to the jurisdiction of politics belongs the role of fixing the social and material conditions of life, as well as inspiring the social engagement of the citizens. Citizens and institutions such as the church and other religious groups, socio-cultural organizations or bodies, on their own part, have the role of providing strategies to assist those in politics and advise them for the welfare of the people and society generally. Just as they have towards improving the existing political institutions and of keeping the political ruling class in-check. This assumption confirms the relevance as well as the irreplaceable role of enlightened citizens, religious and socio-cultural groups and social activists in the political life of the country.
However, what remains to be said is that the above assumption does not explain it all. For instance, it does not explain why exaggerated ethnicity, tribal conflicts, political instability, military coups and counter coups, poverty, corruption, religious intolerance, ethnic-cleansing, religious persecution, terrorism and violence have been endemic to Nigeria’s social history. Neither does it get to the heart of the problem, which is a fresh vision for the world and for the country in which we live.
Moreover, it does not pay sufficient attention to the possibility that politics in Nigeria and many other African nation-states, have not been a failure, but have worked very well. Chaos, war, violence, religious terrorism, religious persecution, ethnic-cleansings, genocides, lopsided government, nepotism, political instability and corruption are not indications of failed institutions; they are ingrained in the very imagination of how nation-state politics works. That is, how they are envisioned, ab initio, by those who created modern African nation states following the Berlin Conference of 1984-1885?
Because, after sixty years of political independence, it has become obvious to all and sundry, that Nigerian state, like many other African nation states created after the Berlin Conference and European colonialism in the continent, were never intended to succeed, neither were they fashioned to serve the needs of the African people. They were and are purely colonial arrangement, meant to continue to serve the needs and interests of former colonial masters. Such that, in the eyes of the colonial masters and authors of the Berlin Conference, whether the new nation states they have created in the continent meant killing off the indigenous populations of African people, nobody cares. What is of paramount importance to them is the envisioned neo-colonial project of the West and its allies in various modern African states.
This, they execute today, not through direct-rule as in the old colonial government style, but rather through their local agents, spinoffs, African politicians they have selected and helped to win elections or to seize power through military coups. This is where we are presently in most of the African countries, including Nigeria. It is a system serving the neo-colonial project in Africa through African leaders and politicians themselves.
We are experiencing the result of all these things in Nigeria today. It is no longer secret to say that former US President Obama in cohort with Britain, France and other Western powers, made Buhari the President of Nigeria through the rigged 2015 Presidential elections. This scenario repeated itself again, and in a more fraudulent manner during the 2019 Presidential election in the country. All this, is part of the reason that despite all the atrocities of the on-going ethnic-cleansings, genocides, religious persecutions of Christians and indigenous populations, Fulani herdsmen terrorism, among others, in Nigeria, none of the mainstream media houses in the West carries the news, and the world powers have remained silence ever since. Because they were all partners in crime in foisting on Nigerians the present Jihadist administration.
Today, as we speak, genocides and ethnic-cleansings perpetrated by state-backed terrorist groups, Boko Haram and Fulani killer-herdsmen are taking place almost on daily basis in Nigeria. These state-backed Muslim fundamentalists and ethnic-irredentists from the North East and North West regions of Nigeria have become a nightmare to indigenous populations and Christians throughout the country. They are killing, raping women, destroying farmlands and displacing indigenous populations, most of whom are Christians.
The Muslim terrorists groups in Nigeria are all operating from the 12 Sharia States of North West and North East regions. Their victims are indigenous ethnic-nationalities in the North East zone, Southern Kaduna, Middle Belt, and Southern states of Nigeria. Federal government equip them with AK47 firearms with which they roam around villages, towns and farmlands unchecked. They kill and sack villagers from their ancestral homes and farmlands. Yet, both the Nigerian federal government and the world centers of powers and media are silent, looking elsewhere while these atrocities and crimes against humanity are happening on daily basis in Nigeria!
Again, the reason for their silence is of course, nothing else if not for the prevalent geopolitical neo-colonial agenda of the West in Africa. In the neo-colonial project of the West and world centers of power, African lives matters nothing. This is the crux of the matter!
In other words, while the conscientious Nigerian citizens, religious and socio-cultural organizations as well as social activists’ engagement in nation-building have been focusing on providing strategies for revising, improving, or managing a failing nation-state and its political institutions, they have paid very little attention to the story of the African nation state and political institutions: “how it works and why it works in the way it does.” To paraphrase E. Katongole, an African theologian from Uganda: it is at this narrative level that a fresh conversation about the citizens, religious bodies, socio-cultural organizations and social activists’ engagement in the Nigerian nation-state politics must take place (cf. E. KATONGOLE, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2011, 2).
This is so because, the role of the citizens, religious and socio-cultural organizations as well as social activists in addressing the present political impasse and crisis in Nigeria, more than any other social concerns, has more to do with creating a new environment for attitudinal change and new ethos. That is, a new way of comprehending our history as a people in search of a new way of existing and as a people in search of their cultural identity and sense of being. It is about understanding how our problem as a people is rooted in Nigeria’s founding story. Such an understanding is very fundamental, in fact, a basic ingredient for the regeneration in building a new society founded on the people’s shared cultural values, affinity and unity of spirit, and on their historical memory as people created in the image and likeness of God.
Cultural Affinity and ‘Unity of the Spirit’ in Nation-building
The inability of the ruling class and elites in Nigeria to recognize the fact that in a multi-cultural and multi-ethno-religious nation state such as ours, it is the recognition of shared value systems, cultural affinity and unity of the spirit of the federating ethnic-nationalities or units that the nation needs to function optimally. Without shared value systems, cultural affinity, and especially, unity of spirit of its citizenry on board, no nation will ever function optimally.
The ‘unity of spirit’ just like unity of purpose, comes from shared cultural values and affinity that bind a people together, irrespective of differences in language, religion and philosophical persuasions. It is what makes a people or nation to endure trials and resist any external aggression. It is the soul of a nation – the energy, which rallies the people together in times of trials, to confront a common enemy and save their fatherland.
Such that if today Nigerians have not been able to speak with one voice, rally together as one people to confront the dragon in the land, it is because the Nigerian state lacks the ‘unity of spirit’, which is the soul of any authentic nation state.
The fact is that what defines or rather determines ‘unity of spirit’ – shared cultural values and cultural affinity that bind a people together and which we must be looking for in the making of a new society or new nation state in Africa today, must not be limited only to ethnicity, religion or language shared by a particular people. Important as these are, shared value systems and ‘cultural affinity’, ‘unity of spirit’, which are the bedrock that bind people together wherever they are, are found largely in people’s traditional mode of societal organization, myths, symbols, rituals, festivals, economic activities such as farming, fishing, trading, animal rearing, concepts of time, etc. It is above all, found in their mode of dressing, especially by their women and elders in their various local communities. Such that wherever you go, one is able to identify his/her people, not only through languages or religions, but especially through those other forms of shared value systems and cultural affinity.
These are the sources, which constitute ‘unity of spirit’ of the people. They are the things we shall be looking for in determining boundaries or frontiers for a new African nation state to emerge.
As Chinua Achebe reminds us, there are manifestations of tribal (or ethnic) culture, which we cannot condemn; for example, peculiar habits of dress, food, language, music, etc. In fact, these manifestations of cultural affinity are positive and desirable. They confer richness on a people’s national culture. They are also the ‘binding spirit’ that hold the nation together (See Chinua Achebe, “The Trouble with Nigeria”, p. 7).
Nation states, which lack such cultural affinity, hardly succeeds in building peace, unity, freedom and equity, neutral to all its divergent and constituent ethnic-nationalities. In fact, such a nation state is often taken over by political instability, tyranny, dictatorship, violence, wars, religious persecutions and ethnic-cleanings, as is the case in Nigeria. In such a society, prejudice against “outsider” and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religion, are the order of the day.
But in a nation state bond together by their shared value systems and cultural affinity, a nation state with unity of spirit and unity of purpose, it is unthinkable to have a situation whereby a citizen would be prevented from living or working anywhere in his country, or from participating in the social, political, economic life of the community in which he chooses to live. Unfortunately, in Nigeria together, we cannot say the same thing. “Prejudice against “outsider” or “strangers” is an attitude one finds everywhere. But no modern state can lend its support to such prejudice without undermining its own progress and civilization.”
This implies that ‘unity of a nation state’ flows from the ‘unity of spirit and mind’ of its people. The unity of nation states do not come necessarily from forced slogan “To Keep Nigeria One is a Task that must be done.” Neither does it come from forced arbitrary ‘colonial boundary’, or the so-called national unity slogan of the government. Rather, it is something that flows from human spirit and mind of the people who inhabit the area and who, in the first place, out of their own free will have decided to create a nation state they could call their own and home. A nation state built from the heart of the people – from bottom top and not from top bottom like what we have today in most of post-colonial, failed independent African nation states, including Nigeria.
A nation state built on the shared value systems, cultural affinity and unity of spirit of the people, is what the ruling class and elites have not been able to achieve or do in the Nigerian state for the citizens. The Nigerian ruling class and elites have all these years till date, failed to fashion a new society based on African culture and philosophy of life, that the citizens could call home and their own.
Furthermore, Nigerian ruling class and elites have not been able to borrow a leaf from the founding fathers of post-war Europe. Right from the time of Roman Empire, through the Medieval Ages, and the last two World Wars in Europe, emperors, kings, queens, nobles, and even popes, have at various points in time, exercised a kind of hegemonic power and influence over the whole of Europe. Any indigenous or homogenous population (or heterogeneous groups who freely agree among themselves to form a nation state of their own choice), which attempted to assert its autonomy and self-determination was often, ruthlessly crushed and forced to submission by the imperial power. However, World Wars I and II changed all that.
Unfortunately, while European powers, after the two World Wars respected the shared value systems and cultural affinity of their diverse peoples in creating the modern-day European nation states, they nonetheless denied Africans the same right and privilege. For instance, many of the world’s troubling problems, especially in Africa, have their roots in decisions made at the treaty of peace at Versailles in 1919 by the Western powers, following defeat of Germany. Among them are the creation of Burundi, Rwanda, the Congo and Iraq, the instability of the Balkans, and above all, the feud between the Arabs and Israelis.
Today we have nation states everywhere in Africa, covering a certain geographical space, created by European colonial masters during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, and in which Africans were never consulted. These states all have within their national territories different kinds of ethnic, cultural or religious groups that do not share the same cultural affinity, value system, language, religion, culture, philosophy of life, etc. People of different and often hostile and large ethnic groups, were often logged together in one nation state with other dismembered minor ethnic-groups. Conflicts among these are common everywhere in Africa today, although they are not violent everywhere. The question is, ‘How do people construct a nation state that will be fair to all federating units in such situations?
Moreover, to serve their colonial agenda, European powers imposed on the new African nation states, the kind of political theory that developed in Europe during the Enlightenment. It is a political theory, which sees the state as a collection of individuals, who have their inalienable rights, but who, in pursuit of their own self-interest, come together to set up structures of common living, spelt out in a contract. They insist on the dignity and rights of every individual. This principle, however, promotes healthy social contract of individuals, but on the contrary, it ignores natural communities like families, kin groups, cultural affinity, shared value systems, philosophy of life, worldview, etc.
All this implies that we cannot base our vision of new political system and structure as well as construction of new African society out of the present British contraption called Nigeria, on this theory of individualism. The basis of societal organization in African culture is best explained in the Igbo wisdom saying of “Egbe bere ugo bere” – live and let live. What Chinua Achebe would describe with another Igbo wisdom saying of “Ife kwuru ife akwudebe ya” – ‘When one thing stands another stands beside it.’ This is the African sense of subsidiarity and philosophy of relatedness, the interconnectedness of things in the universe, in the spirit of shared value system, cultural affinity and unity of spirit.
The leadership challenge the Nigerian state beckons on its leaders today is about fashioning a new socio-political order that is people-oriented. It is about allowing its people of different ethnic-nationalities, cultures, religions and languages, logged together under British colonial arrangement, to have the platform where they can decide what type of political system they want for themselves.
Those ethnic-nationalities who may decide to continue to stay together under the present colonial configuration or rather arrangement may be encouraged to do so, while those who after referendum may decide to go their separate ways to form new independent states, in order to relate well with their neighbors, should also be allowed to do so.
This is the price of strong democracy and purposeful leadership, Nigeria needs today. That is, if we really mean well for the people and our ancestral land. It is the measure of political maturity, the world expects from the present ruling class and elites in Nigeria. Anything short of it is a betrayal to Africa and the world.
It is about being realistic to ourselves as a people trapped in a failed African nation-state created by our former colonial masters who never meant well for us. It is the bitter truth about Nigeria! The reality on the ground today does not offer us any other alternative than to tell ourselves the naked truth. Because, “only truth will set you free.”
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 runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.