Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices by Chido Onumah
The more I look at the shopping list of demands for remaking Nigeria and the ideas we proffer as necessities before we can truly become a nation, the more convinced I become that our urgent need is a fix of our minds as a people, starting with a more comprehensive understanding of our history. For without it, our journey will be without a compass or direction.
Recently, we were at Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja on the invitation of Dr Chido Onumah (a journalist, author and rights activist) for the “National Dialogue & Public Presentation” of his book, Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices. As one might guess, it is a collection of sixty essays from sixty Nigerians, examining “Nigeria’s social, economic, and political situation”, while exploring options and solutions for remaking Nigeria, which obviously stems from the premise that the country needs a remaking. But does Nigeria need a remaking or could it be that it is Nigerians who need a remaking? Perhaps, it is a question of which comes first: Do we need to remake Nigeria to have remade Nigerians or remade Nigerians to birth a remade Nigeria? Can both get along? Is there a Nigeria to remake? Is Nigeria really yearning for a remake? Is remaking the same as restructuring?
With these questions on the mind, a ‘national dialogue’ with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Governor Kayode Fayemi, former Senate President Anyim Pius Anyim, along with a long list of intellectuals, many of them contributors to the book, was definitely going to be a forum for dissecting the past, unbundling ideas and assemblying solutions, in charting the way forward for Nigeria. If there was yet to be a consensus on ‘remaking Nigeria’, I doubt that there is a disagreement on the imperative of nation-building as a task ad infinitum, an “unfinished business”, as Governor Kayode Fayemi reminded us at the event.
But perhaps the lack of ‘elite consensus’ on where we truly are, where we ought to be going, and how to get there, which itself, we are told by the book reviewer, Mr Mahmud Jega, as expected, is characteristic of the sixty essays, this might have to do, in part, with the fact that, as Dike Chukwumerije puts it, “our understanding of our history is not comprehensive enough”. Indeed, it is evident in the things we play up and the ones we do not pay attention to, whereas we ought to, stemming from our ignorant, perverted or revisionist recollection of history. Tope Fasua, the economist, who was on the panel moderated by Maupe Ogun-Yusuf, reminded us of Obafemi Awolowo’s statement that “Nigeria is a not a nation, it is a mere geographical expression”, which has been put to such notorious use, completely at variance with the context in which it was written in Awolowo’s 1947 book, Path to Freedom. Not only have we lost sight of the fact that the original statement was by the Italian Count Metternich in 1814, in the context that Italy, at the time, unlike France or England, was more of a collection of principalities and yet to attain nationhood like others; that is if nationhood is an attainable end. But that statement has been weaponised for all sorts of untoward intents and purposes, completely incongruous with Awolowo’s task and context of charting a path to freedom and nationhood. Are there not numerous countries whose circumstances of birth are not too dissimilar from ours that are forging ahead on the unending path to nationhood?
Our challenge with effective and truthful dialogue with history is indeed comprehensive, with distant and recent pasts being equal victims. Chukwumerije challenged, rightfully so to me, the assumption of 1914 as being the sole maker of Nigeria. He reminded us of the Constitutional Conferences before Nigeria’s Independence in 1960, at which Nigerians came together to chart the way forward, with the country as an entity being a fundamental by-product of these conferences. Indeed, as Dr Kayode Fayemi (cited by Jega), in the address he delivered at Arewa House in Kaduna last year, submitted that “as a people, if not as a country, Lord Lugard did not introduce us to ourselves. Long before the Whiteman set his foot on our land, our people had developed an intricate network of relationship(s).” How can we simply assume Nigeria as that arbitrary abstract decreed into existence as one by the colonialists, while disregarding the roles played by our Fathers in ushering in an independent Nigeria? Would that be a comprehensive recall of history?
The question of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution being the product of the military, as a decree foisted on Nigeria by a few, under the pretext of “We the People”, a point also made by Dr Fayemi, is, just as well, another victim of our faulty or incomprehensive contextualisation of history. Of course, as I have argued in a 2017 intervention, “the point being made that we technically do not have a constitution simply because what we have was foisted on us by the military in form of Decree 23 is neither here nor there for me. They say the Constitution says ‘We the people’, whereas there was no point when the people ever came together to write or sanction the constitution, by way of referendum. True. But how many constitutions being successfully put to use all over the world went through this process? As a matter of fact, a number of well-regarded constitutions were put together by a few men. So, that cannot be the problem. The 1999 Constitution is almost a clone of the 1979 Constitution that emanated from a Constituent Assembly and the Constitution Drafting Committee shepherded by giants such as FRA Williams.” That point about the 1999 Constitution has also been made by Simon Kolawole, as Dr Jega noted in his review at the book presentation.
I will take the liberty to push the point that it is our lack of consensus on a comprehensive and fact-checked account of some of the issues driving national discourse that makes our conversations so repetitive and tedious, often heading in no discernible direction. Such is it that we have had more amendments to the 20 year-old Constitution than some have had to their century-old ones. That is why it took almost 13 years to pass into law a Petroleum Industry Act, which many agree is a fundamental plank for a turnaround of the industry. Such was it that as soon as there was a consensus leading to the bill finally becoming law, daggers emerged all over again, many more now drawn after the bill became law, mainly from people with little understanding of the law and/or the oil and gas industry.
It is the way it has always been. It is the way it is. Of course, it would have been a miracle, not expected though, if there was a consensus on what ails us or which way we should go, from the sixty voices. The book reviewer, deploying quick wit, opted to “add to the confusion by making some observations on the viewpoints relying upon the African adage, I hope, that an elder sees something sitting down which a young person does not see even when he is standing up”. The confusion is better captured in this lengthy quote from Dr Jega’s review, “several contributors blame the 1999 Constitution for many of our problems as a country. I doubt if this is true because the United Kingdom made a lot of material and cultural progress in the last 800 years, even though it does not have a written constitution. The Constitution of the United States is much slimmer than our own but USA has made more progress than we have done. On the other hand, India’s constitution is bulkier than our own but India is also bedevilled by problems, the latest being a massive spike of COVID.
There is a lot of obsession in the minds of these young writers with democracy and the assumption that it is the panacea for progress. Well, the Asian Tigers, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, and more recently Vietnam, made a lot of material progress under very authoritarian conditions, so democracy is not necessarily a requirement for rapid national progress.
The allegation made by a contributor that the 1999 Constitution is not a people’s constitution because it was written by a military government may not be true. As Simon Kolawole pointed out, the 1999 Constitution is essentially the 1979 constitution with minor adjustments, and the latter was approved by a popularly elected Constituent Assembly in September 1979. One contributor blamed British coloniarsl rule for our failure to fulfil our potentials, but then Honk Kong made a lot of progress under British colonial rule and became the shipping, banking and finance hub of Asia.
There is a lot of obsession in the minds of these young writers with democracy and the assumption that it is the panacea for progress. Well, the Asian Tigers, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, and more recently Vietnam, made a lot of material progress under very authoritarian conditions, so democracy is not necessarily a requirement for rapid national progress. Even the Nigerian Civil War, which lasted 30 months and cost a million lives, cannot explain all our problems of today because the Vietnam War lasted for 30 years after the Second World War, cost many more lives than and inflicted far more damage than our Civil War did. Yet, I see many Made in Vietnam goods in our markets today but I doubt if there are any Made in Nigeria goods in the markets of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
In the 1990s when Western countries were putting much pressure on Nigeria to democratise, due to irritation, I asked a visiting British Foreign Office minister, privately, why UK was not putting similar pressure on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Jordan and Oman to democratise. All of them are absolute monarchies that have no constitutions, no parliaments, no political parties, no trade unions and no civil liberties. The British minister whispered to me conspiratorially that, “Look, those countries you mentioned are ok as they are. Democracy does not fit everyone.”
Some contributors in this book speak about the lack of true federalism as the obstacle to our progress. Well, Ghana is not even a federation. It is a unitary state but it appears to be more stable than Nigeria. France and U.K. are also unitary states, so it is not as if federalism is the only structure capable of advancing a country. There is also no guarantee that a “true” federal system has solved everyone’s problems, as we see with the continuous quest by Quebec Province to secede from the Canadian confederation.
A number of contributors blame the concentration of powers in the Federal Government for our lack of progress. I support the devolution of more powers to states, but I must observe that the concentration of power in the centre did not prevent Nazi Germany, USSR or more recently, the Peoples Republic of China from making rapid industrial progress.
One contributor gripped about what he calls “unequal development” in the country, perhaps as a reference to the allegation that Northern Nigeria is feudal. Well, Japan leapfrogged in the 19th Century from a medieval society run by Tokugawa shoguns, samurai warriors and Shinto priests to an industrial society within four decades, or twenty years less than the 60 years we have spent since Independence.
…the idea that we cannot make strides in the direction of development unless we are done with putting in the pegs of nationhood, as canvassed by some, is a strange one. As Vice President Atiku Abubakar noted in his address, “both theoretically and historically such sequencing is not entirely correct. Development cannot wait for nation-building. In fact, neither development nor nation-building needs to wait for the other.
Another contributor blamed an unjust social order for Nigeria’s slow progress. However, injustice did not stop some societies from making rapid progress. Vile as the Apartheid system was, South Africa became the continent’s most industrialised country under it. Some countries developed using slave labour. The monumental injustice of wiping our four million Red Indians and 100 million bison in North America did not prevent U.S.A and Canada from becoming what we see today as bastions of progress. Even corruption, which almost everybody blames for Nigeria’s problems, did not stop some countries from advancing. During my NYSC days, I read a book titled Sinews of American Capitalism. It is full of stories about how the “robber barons” ripped off Americans in the railroad, oil and steel industries, yet they still launched the country to world power status.
The point of these, which I will also make here, is that the fault is often not as much about the things we harp upon. It has always been about us as a people, about our willingness to simply put our heads down, be less selfish and toil to make the system work. For some, the elixir they have found for us is the 1963 Constitution. But how did we really fare under the magical 1963 Constitution back in the day? Well, according to Professor Remi Anifowose, “unfortunately, the constitution was not allowed to operate for more than two and a half years due to the turbulent crises that characterised the period e.g. the Action Group crisis of 1962/63, the population census crises of 1962/63, the Tiv riots of 1960 and 1964, the federal election crisis of 1964/65 and the Western Regional election crisis of 1965, among others. All available apparatus (the Army, the police and the judiciary) were employed by the power elites against their opponents. The major political parties in the country were engaged in the struggle not only to win and retain power but also to CONTROL THE CENTRE WHICH WAS RECOGNIZED AS HAVING ALL THE DOMINANT RESOURCES in spite of its weakness politically.
Hence, all available means were employed to ‘GRAB’ power including the BLATANT RIGGING OF ELECTIONS, MANIPULATION OF CENSUS FIGURES, VIOLENCE, ARSON, CORRUPTION AND ACTS OF BRIGANDAGE. These continued until the army seized power in January 1966 when IT BECAME OBVIOUS THAT THE POLITICAL CLASS HAD LOST CONTROL OF GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS.”
That, for me, is proof that it has always been about us and it is still about us. Countries function with a largely unwritten constitution. While people talk about federalism, often from the unspoken point of controlling their resources, it would appear that many have forgotten that federalism, itself, is more of a protection mechanism for the weak within a union with other stronger parties, rather than a platform for those who think themselves strong or endowed to spread their wings. And that there is nothing known as ‘true federalism’, as there are different variants of federalism in theory and practice, all over the world, each being a work in progress in itself.
Also, the idea that we cannot make strides in the direction of development unless we are done with putting in the pegs of nationhood, as canvassed by some, is a strange one. As Vice President Atiku Abubakar noted in his address, “both theoretically and historically such sequencing is not entirely correct. Development cannot wait for nation-building. In fact, neither development nor nation-building needs to wait for the other. Development can indeed help in nation-building. We can work and talk at the same time. Nation-building has not ended in the United States of America, United Kingdom, Russia, China, and Belgium, to cite a few examples. Yet they are among the most developed countries in the world. What we need to do is work hard at both.”
The more I look at the shopping list of demands for remaking Nigeria and the ideas we proffer as necessities before we can truly become a nation, the more convinced I become that our urgent need is a fix of our minds as a people, starting with a more comprehensive understanding of our history. For without it, our journey will be without a compass or direction. Indeed, nationhood is more about finding ways to accommodate and assuage fears, unfounded as they might be, rather than forcing down one perspective or timing on others. I will argue for us to honestly remake our minds, which will then translate into what we see and how we see things, thus enabling us to clearly see what we need to remake about Nigeria, and making this more inclusive, especially with respect to gender, as Dr Amina Salihu kindly reminded us at the event. We have to be careful with the increasing tendency to ‘weaponise our differences’, lest we push ourselves to the point where, as Mr Jega prayed against, it becomes a choice between disorder and injustice, which is really not a choice.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi