Nigerian Unity And Nation Building

Prof. Anya O. Anya

By Professor Anya O. Anya


I have been asked to speak to you all on the topic Nigerian Unity and Nation Building. Under normal circumstances that would have been considered an easy task to undertake. However, given that the circumstances in our times can no longer be considered normal in the light of the level of violence, criminality and divisiveness which is now our daily experience, the undertaking becomes a challenge and a dilemma. There was a time that some of our leaders especially in the military era would glibly tell us that Nigerian unity is non-negotiable. Most people in the present situation we find ourselves will consider such an affirmation not only hollow but clearly now as uninformed and ignorant. This situation would not have arisen five, ten or twenty years ago. So what went wrong and why?

  1. Prologue

We need to begin from the beginning. Nigeria as constituted at present is a very plural society: multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. It is the product of the contact of the mainly European peoples with the African peoples on the West Coast of Africa. It started first as a relationship based on trade until it morphed into the obnoxious slave trade. When the slave trade was abolished the European powers started the scramble for choice pieces of African real estate. The contending forces partitioned various areas of Africa as their spheres of influence which was ratified by them in the Berlin Conference of 1885. The British staked their claims principally in the area of the Niger which ultimately became the geographical area named Nigeria.

The arrowhead for the acquisition of Nigeria was George Taubman Goldie who procured a charter from the British Government in the name of the Royal Niger Company in July 1886. It was this company that entered into treaties with various Kings, Chiefs and communities that set up trading posts in the area of the Niger. His interest in the company was later sold to the British Government for #865000 (eight hundred and sixty five thousand pounds sterling). Thus the foundation of Nigeria was a trade transaction in which Nigeria as a commodity was sold by a foreign individual to the British Government. In 1900, the Southern Nigeria protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate with the colony of Lagos were rechristened: the colony and protectorate of Nigeria. Each of the three territories maintained considerable regional authority and separateness. In 1914 the three component parts were brought together through the amalgamation of the three components by Lugard who established a minimalist central administration although the regional arrangements continued. Lugard’s interest was not to encourage the emergence of a national administration but merely to balance the books such that the deficit of the Northern Protectorate can be off-set by the credit of the Southern Protectorate and Colony of Lagos. As it has been said the Southern lady of means by Lugard’s conception of the relationship was to subsidise the Northern gentry and free the colonial authority in London from the obligation to make up the deficit of the Northern territory. There was therefore no incentive on the part of the leadership, North or South, to develop a Pan-Nigerian consciousness. As far as the people were concerned the white man’s contraption did not concern them. In other words the prospect of the Niger Area becoming a nation in the modern sense in the foreseeable future was not part of the plan. So Nigeria to some extent is happenstance, an accident.

Given that Lugard continued the administration of the two entities – South and North as separate territories run through the indirect rule system there was no basis for interaction between either of the regional blocks and there was no attempt to encourage them to share a common vision of their future. From 1914 until 1946 when the Richards Constitution validated the regional administrative structure and in spite of Clifford’s effort in 1922 to attempt the initiation of a representative government, the administration of the area was seen as two silos, autonomous and with minimal contact administratively, socially and culturally.

Under these circumstances the seed of a viable national consciousness could not germinate. The two sections co-existed as two aliens co-habiting in the same house and mainly confined to their own rooms in a supposedly common house. The matter was not helped when the emerging political leaders saw themselves merely as replacing the departing colonialists and not as builders of a new nation. There was no basis for a shared vision of the future. The nearest to a vision of a nation emerging from the multiplicity of ethnic groups was espoused by Azikiwe who underrated the intensity of the regional vision as espoused by Ahmadu Bello and Awolowo to their people. He ignored the social anthropological and cultural factors that are important in building a nation and which often determines the mould out of which a national entity can emerge. Thus the need for a clearly defined structure and foundation for the brand new nation was not considered or the problems were underestimated. Then and now consequently our leaders and those who have followed them have indulged in wholesale imitations of the values, artefacts and the social and cultural usages of the departing colonialists.

  • The National Question

The national question usually considers the totality of political, economic, territorial, legal, social, ideological and cultural relations among nations. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society such as Nigeria it attempts to identify the challenges that must be addressed if the nation is to survive or critical issues that have been left unresolved and now threaten the nation-state. Many years ago Wole Soyinka had posed the question when is a nation not a nation? The question has resurrected with renewed intensity and ferocity in the last five years in the light of the sectional, sectarian and often discriminatory policies of the present government. There are now separatist movements that insist that Nigeria must now allow some of its people to secede from Nigeria as we presently know it. In other words there are now elements in our society who do not subscribe to the idea of Nigerian unity, particularly amongst the youth who now have protagonists for Arewa, Oduduwa or Biafra as independent states outside the Nigerian family. So how did we get here?

When we look round the nations of the world we see nations which show evidence of diversity in their social, ethnic, cultural and religious organisations such as Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany, the United States, the old Yugoslavia and the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A close examination of these nations will reveal clear evidence that those nations who manage their diversities survive while those who mismanage their diversities often implode to go their separate ways as we saw in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It is pertinent to note that diversity in a nation can give rise to nationalist movements and the responsible management of these movements can conduce to peace and harmony within the nation or the alternative when the constituent parts go their separate ways as was the case in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

In the management of diversities, various political concepts have emerged such as self-determination, federalism and democracy as well as individual rights such as freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. A comparative examination of the process of management of diversities shows that in general, diverse societies that are managed successfully are usually democractic and believe in and practice the concepts of social justice, equity and fairness in their social and political relations. On the other hand totalitarian, autocratic and feudalistic political systems cannot manage diversities and often implode and disintegrate.

With regard to the issue of the national question, we find much of the literature is associated with Marxist and socialist analysis of European societies which is why their perception of the national question often veers towards the examination of the class forces that play a central role in directing national movements in different socio-political and geographic settings. Their concept of class is derived from the emergence of class in post-industrialisation situations in 18th and 19th century Europe. Most African societies are communal. Hence the analysis of the interplay of social forces including the class categories in the society may not apply in the same way. This may also explain our inability to understand the ethnic factor in our politics and social management. This has affected our understanding and analysis of post colonial African societies. This may have therefore compromised the socialist and Marxist understanding of African societies and contributed to the lack of an African response to the post colonial social phenomena such as neo-colonialism that hobbled our political leaders in their search for an African path to a future of social progress and economic prosperity.

  1. The Current Situation

Nigeria is currently enmeshed in a multiplicity of crises with multi-dimensional facets that has contributed to the emergence of deep fissures in the body politic. There is the social crisis which is seen in lack of national cohesion and has often led to stark poverty in the mass of the people. There is the political crisis that has led to the loud clamour for restructuring, devolution and redefinition of the constitutional relationship between the component parts. There is the economic crisis which has left us sixty years after our independence from colonial rule mired in underdevelopment when our peers with less conducive circumstances such as South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia have exploited emerging global circumstances to become developed and emergent regional powers in the modern sense of development. The conjucture of these problems have led some to predict or even to affirm that Nigeria is transiting to the status of a failed state which given the recent emergence of separatist movements – Arewa, Oduduwa and Biafra to mention a few these constituent parts may be on their way to separate existence as independent states. This conclusion is obviously emerging from a counsel of despair. Nations such as China have emerged from worse circumstances to occupy their present dominant position in global affairs,

The difference is leadership and the deployment of high intellectual perceptive capacity and acumen in the leadership to dissect, understand and reassemble the elements of insightful and historical analysis into a new vision of the future that can attract, enthral, invigorate and motivate the citizens to a new effort to build a nation. But such a vision must not ignore the realities on the ground in the putative nation’s effort to build a new nation.

In our present circumstances we have had in the last decade the insurrection in the North East engineered by Boko Haram. We now have the extension of the Boko Haram organization into the North West as reported in Niger State. In addition, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and even Sokoto States are in the grip of bandits, kidnappers and sundry purveyors of criminality. In the North Central, Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba and other states of this zone have witnessed the rampaging Fulani herdsmen who have displaced the indigenous people in an effort to acquire these lands as new settlements and colonies. In the South the same Fulani herdsmen have occupied the forests in the South West, in the South South and in the South East. From these redouts they have carried out campaigns of murder and even arson. In an effort to counter these new lords of the forest we are observing the emergence of new self-help vigilantes and other local defenders of their ancestral land. Possibly in reaction to the perception that the law enforcement agents have tended to aid these foreign interlopers as recently alleged by the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, we now have situations where police stations and even INEC offices have been attacked or burnt. To some, it would seem as if Nigeria is teetering at the edge of a deep abyss, ready to tilt over on the least application of force. To others we are at the early stages of low intensity chaos given that these violent phenomena which are threats to our security started in the Northern states and have progressively moved South, we must develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with it. It can no longer be regarded as a Northern, a Southern, an Eastern or even as a Western problem. It is a Nigerian problem. We must tackle it as a national problem which we must deal with from its epicenter in the North. So how do we approach the challenge?

In the development of a viable strategy we must have certain basic conditions fulfilled. The first is that there must be trust and confidence in the leadership which is the foundation for credibility. In these regards, certain statements made in the past by Mr. President in relation to the fight against Boko Haram when he advised the former President Jonathan that fighting the Boko Haram was tantamount to fighting against the North come to mind. Again as leader of a Miyetti Allah delegation to a former Governor of Oyo State Lam Adesina he had queried the latter why he was fighting his people (the Miyetti Allah) by trying to organize how the herders should operate in order to avoid creating problems for other citizens.

These doubts in the mind of the people have been reinforced by his determination to build a modern railway to northern Niger with international loans borrowed on behalf of Nigeria which will be repaid by Nigeria. In addition it is alleged that he plans to build refineries in Katsina close to the Niger border which should refine crude oil from the oil fields of the Republic of Niger. The Eastern Railways are still in a decrepit state in the poor state the colonialists left them as narrow gauge when they departed. The plan currently is not to modernize them with the standard gauge but to refurbish them as the narrow gauge. Our refineries have been non-operational in the last five years but we are to build a new one for Niger. Consequently the question has been raised: which is the priority for our President, solving Nigeria’s social and economic problems or tackling the economic problems and underdevelopment of Niger?

  1. The Fulani Conundrum

Among the multitude of challenges that are threatening the future of Nigeria is the Fulani onslaught on Nigerian peoples literally all over Nigeria. The Fulani cattle herders are now to be found in all forests in all Southern States as well as in the forests of the North Central States of Nigeria. As the herders insist on open grazing across farmlands and even urban centres they destroy farmlands and other available cultivable space. In the process there is conflict between the herders, farmers and other citizens for space. Such conflicts have led to murder, arson and mindless violence across the states. Many have become refugees in their country. No state has been spared. But who are the Fulanis?

The Fulanis are one of the ethnic groups which the Europeans encountered in the North Western corner of West Africa especially around Futa Jalon hills in Guinea from where they spread across the Sahel region of West Africa reaching Nigeria in the late 18th to early 19th century. They and the Dogons are supposed to have had the understanding of astronomy by the 13th century and were supposed to have been ahead of West European countries in astronomy at that time. While western European astronomy became precise, measurable and mathematical, Fulani and Dogon astronomy veered into astrology and occultism. They were reputed, therefore to have understanding of the future and can forecast future events. It is speculated that one of their spiritual leaders had forecast that in the future they would sweep across Africa until they meet the Atlantic Ocean again. There are some Fulanis who believe that present events in Nigeria and to some extent in the Central African Republic is a fulfilment of this prophecy. They are to be found across West Africa – in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and of course Nigeria. In most of those places many are nomadic aliens but in general they are minority tribes in all the places where they have settled. In Nigeria, it is estimated that there are 3 million Fulanis. They embraced Islam and for them Islam is a cloak for their Fulani cosmology founded on astrology and occultism. It would seem then that the modern day scientific culture which to a large extent swept through Europe and from there across the modern world in the 18th, 19th and 20th century did not touch them. In some ways it can be said that much of the economic and political events that shaped the modern world also passed over them. Their nomadic lifestyle poses two problems to other people. They need land to graze their cattle and there is none to spare. Their constant movement prevents them from putting roots anywhere thus denying their youth some education. How to handle them becomes a problematic dilemma especially given their disposition towards dominance and conquest anywhere they find themselves. In Nigeria they claim they were born to rule. However, there is a healthy and constructive side to their interaction in some places where they have settled.

Fulanis have among them some who have now settled in different places in Nigeria especially in the North Western parts. In these places, they have contributed to the development of the societies where they have settled. They have not only produced former Heads of State of Nigeria but some of the most patriotic statesmen and public servants that Nigeria can boast of. The nomadic Fulani are now a problem not only to themselves but to other Fulanis and the Nigerian society at large. Reorganizing and reintegrating them into the modern world is called for. It is a delicate assignment that will involve education and re-education as well as realignment of values. Where there is a collaborative spirit a new trajectory for development is possible if the requisite patience, tolerance and co-operation is available. The secular leadership of Nigeria including the Fulani statesmen must point the way and do the heavy lifting that is called for. It will be difficult but doable. Who will lead the way is the current challenge especially as the religious factor if not carefully and responsibly handled could be the detonator for an explosive outcome. In such a situation all of us without exception will be the losers especially Nigeria as a nation. To conclude on this the question may be raised: Fulanis are found in Guinea which could be regarded as their ancestral abode as well as in Ivory Coast, Ghana and even in Mali. In all these places Fulanis live in peace with their compatriots, how come that the same atmosphere of peaceful co-existence is now threatened in Nigeria and to some extent in the Central African Republic?

  1. Quo Vadis? (Where Do WE Go from Here?)

In the light of all we have said above and given the multi-dimensional nature of our crises, let us return to our theme of National Unity and Nation building. As part of the 50th Anniversary of Nigeria’s independence a book titled Nigeria: Half a Century of Progress and Challenges was put together by an enterprising young Nigerian journalist Ms Constance Chiogor Ikokwu. The contributors included Nasir El Rufai, the late Dr Adegbite, Emeka Anyaoku, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala and my humble self among others. In the first chapter appropriately titled Nation Building Dr Chiedu Osakwe posed a set of five critical questions, namely

  • How does a modern state emerge: is it an inexorable organic process or an experimental construct of trial, errors and course correction with risks of failure or success?
  • What should be the standard and strategic goals for the construction of a modern state? Are the contemporary priorities of Nigeria relevant and realistic?
  • What should be the critical mix and sequence of policies in addressing the challenges of insecurity, poverty reduction, development and corruption? Does governance matter?
  • Is there a risk that Nigeria can fail; what does failure mean? Are there relevant historical and contemporary experiences? And finally
  • On current evidence and trends what are the prospects for the Nigerian experience?

These questions are even more relevant and urgent today than they were a decade ago: in deciding where we ought to be headed now, we need a better understanding of the major features of our challenge if we are to construct a feasible road map to a desirable future. In underlining the multiple crises that faces Nigeria and its multi-dimensional features, the search for solution must include the search for the appropriate leadership fit for purpose in the 21st century environment. Of the various problems spot-lighted the most urgent are the security situation, the management of diversity, the economy and the strategy in pursuit of transformation of the society geared towards nation building. As it has been observed, ‘in Nigeria state building is not only about identifying and producing individual brilliance and talent. It is much more: leadership has disappointed, governance has exposed serious flaws and national life has been chaotic and lacked coherent organization’. According to Osakwe, in this dire situation the starting point must be the overall environment, normally manifested in the security of life and property, the rule of law including law and order. These conditions remain sine qua non for nation building. In the absence of these conditions nothing will work, not even the best conceived policies.

He continues, ‘insecurity is one of the biggest non-tariff barriers to trade and investment. Insecurity will countervail and undermine all policies for growth, poverty reduction and development… constructing a robust and viable Nigerian state requires government that is democratic, pluralist and inclusive, organized and effectively led, reflecting merit, with technocratic implementation of policies, that are market based ..Competition is the foundation of progress’…No one can therefore doubt that the security situation in our country is presently at the cusp of DANGER and must be accorded the highest level of priority.

It is important to note that an often ignored problem is the growing distance between those who govern and those who are governed. The chasm has grown particularly in the last decade. It is not possible to deal adequately with the security situation unless the people are mobilized to play their part. Hence there is an urgent need to return the definition and direction of national objectives and governance beyond short term political calculations. Governance must establish a clear role for the people as active participants in the defining and shaping of their future. Hence there must be a democratic basis for governance that can lead to development in the society.

Next in the order of priority after security of life and property must be how to tackle the economic crisis. As earlier pointed out by the Growth Commission, to break through to fast-paced and accelerated economic growth a nation must aim at the doubling of its economic size every decade. This is only possible if the annual growth rate is at least above 7% or more conveniently in the realm of double digits if it is to accommodate the population growth. In Nigeria, population growth has usually been above 3% but often close to 4%. Thus the economic growth rate must be at least 7% plus 4% (11%) which is in the threshold of double digits. In the last decade the economy grew at more than 7% for sometime in the period of Jonathan, but has consistently regressed to about 2% since 2015. It is therefore not surprising that Nigeria has now achieved the distinction of being the poverty capital of the world. The lesson is clear: any Economic Management Team or Economic Advisory Committee that does not plan for a double digit growth of the Nigerian economy is not serious because any growth rate below double digit (11% and above) will only increase the poverty level and increase misery of the people. Any economic planner for Nigeria must bear in mind the characteristics that the Growth Commission has identified as common to all high growth economies, namely,

  • Positive alignment with the global economy through exports;
  • Macroeconomic stability
  • High rate of savings and investments
  • Market driven growth; and
  • Credible, capable and competent governance.

For high growth economies, the role of government is to develop a coherent economic strategy, appoint a competent and knowledgeable economic management team to steer the strategy, create and build institutions to regulate policy and mobilise the private sector to drive growth through the micro-economy where wealth and employment are created. The collateral benefits will necessarily include the reduction of poverty. This is the road map that brought Singapore from the third world to the first world in a generation. Their system according to one of their leaders was driven by Merit, Productivity and Honesty (M.P.H). Here is the challenge for Nigeria.

The lessons of history teaches that a value-driven culture is also necessary for societies to transit to fast-paced growth. In Western Europe according to Webber the fast paced development through industrialization of their societies that produced both the scientific revolution and capitalism was driven by the Protestant ethic with its emphasis on the values of stewardship and honesty, industry and thrift as well as merit and rational competition. It has also been suggested that the Confucian ethic which espoused similar values to the Protestant ethic facilitated the transition of the Asian tigers including Singapore and China to the fast paced economic lane. It has been suggested that the fissures in our body politic have never been as wide and deep as they are currently or since the era of Clifford in the 1920s. Under Buhari it is agreed by most analysts that our diversity have been grossly mismanaged. Even the inefficient efforts to manage our diversities through the federal character principle or even the assignment of quotas have been abused. It is usual to manage diversities through affirmative action. When affirmative action is the policy merit is recognized while the areas of deficiency of the weaker are recognized as special, so extra aid is given to these weaker ones to enhance their competitiveness over time without sacrificing merit. Over time the weak will catch up and compete effectively. When the alternative policy of federal character or quota is applied, it is usually at the expense of merit and often encourages the weaker to treat this as an entitlement and often takes the need for better performance for granted. This is the reason why all the states classified as educationally disadvantaged more than thirty years ago have not improved till date except Bayelsa state but rather many have regressed. It is clear that appropriate policies competently applied with fairness and equity rather than constitutional provisions only can make the difference.

The private sector has usually performed better in the management of diversities. The management tool used is what is called boundary spanning leadership strategy. The first step is for the leadership to define very clearly the areas of difference between the communities or constituencies including the ethnic groups. This is followed by the clear identification of the common areas of similarities and shared values. The leadership will then make an extra effort guided by the principles of justice, fairness and equity to ensure that the communities or constituents are encouraged to cooperate with each other and to build consensus consistent with equity and fair competition especially in the areas of shared values. Over time the social categories develop an acceptable framework for competition within an agreed fair and equitable process defined by the emergent value system which unites while facilitating the emergence of new human and humane values consistent with compassion and empathy. A good and empirical nation where the effort to span cultural and social boundaries overtime has led to a unifying ethos and a constitution based on this common ethos is Switzerland.

It is to be emphasized that the individual has a role to play in the process of nation building. A change in mindset is necessary leading to a transformation and change in attitudes and individual behaviour such as the rejection of immediate reward in place of delayed gratification. The foundation for a new architecture of governance driven by a critical mix of reformative policies that demands an “education away”, from primordial reflexes which includes the sense of entitlement and quotas which are then replaced by “education towards” hard work, entrepreneurial ambition and acceptance of competition for opportunities. It marks the emergence of the new Nigerian- hardworking, industrious, competitive and driven by values anchored on ethical principles of trust, fairness, confidence and driven by the highest standards of excellence and merit. That new Nigeria will be built on the foundation of democratic, meritocratic and market driven governance with security and rule of law properly entrenched to pursue accelerated growth which will banish poverty, enrich transformative development that in time, given reforms in education will lead to the emergence of a knowledge society. It is doable. It is possible. Hence, the battle for the Nigeria of the 21st century fit for purpose must start today. The harbingers of the new Nigeria competent, knowledgeable, ethical and responsible are already waiting in the wings. God bless them and bless Nigeria. Thank you for your patience and attention. I am done.


**Being the text of a lecture at the Award ceremony of the Double Diamond Platform @ Excellence Hotel, Ogba, Lagos, by Professor Anya O. Anya Ph.D. (Cambridge) FAS, OFR, NNOM.


– June 25, 2021 @ 10:06 GMT |

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