Nigeria is, unarguably, a diverse nation. But the core questions and worries relate to the usefulness and or concerns inherent in this diversity. Is the diversity a strength or a weakness? More than 100 years after the amalgamation of its various territories and the creation of the entity we now call Nigeria, it is time we ask the hard question of not just what we have done with our differences but also what we intend to do with it in future. Are we going to leverage it to advance the nation or will it continued to be used for parochial purposes and to further divide the nation? The time to decide is now.
True, the many separate societies that constitute the Nigerian nation differ strikingly from one another. Like many other nations, we are divided along language, social habits, tribal and cultural lines. There are also significant variations in the way the different Nigerian societies organise themselves, in their conception of right and wrong and in the ways they interact with their environment. Inside each group, though, there are even many more divisions along the lines of dialect, social standings and tribal affiliations and groups. Many of these differences persist to this day despite a century of living together and inter-marrying.
Again, we must return to the question of the implications and relevance of these socio-political and ethno-centric diversities. Is it strength like the General Conference of UNESCO (2001) asserted about the world when it stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity that ”… cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”?
Misuse of diversity
As far as UNESCO is concerned, cultural diversity should confer an advantage to our development as a nation. Sadly, the Nigerian experience in the past 55 years of nationhood has not supported this hypothesis. With about 389 different ethnic groups, Nigeria is, indeed, one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. However, rather than leverage its advantages, this diversity has largely been exploited by generations of leaders in a negative way as they jostle for political power.
Politics, since the First Republic, has been reduced to a fierce contest between the ethnic groups. We fight over Census figures, projects, offices, etc, in an attempt to gain unfair advantage over one another. Initially, the competition between the governments of the different regions was healthy. They strove to outdo each other on developmental projects, but the administration at the centre was always shaky and tension laden. Eventually, a bitter civil war was fought for over three years, leading to the defeat of Biafra which the people in the Eastern Region had sought to carve out of Nigeria.
The experience and bitterness of that civil war lingers. In fact, the ethnic animosity is getting worse, fed by mutual suspicion. We refer to each other in negative terms and it is clear in our interactions that we barely tolerate each other. The net effect of our inability to work together is gross underdevelopment, hunger, diseases, pervasive and abject poverty in the land.
Recently, there has been an increased agitation for the balkanisation of Nigeria along ethnic lines. Most pronounced is the emphatic determination of groups like Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) to recreate the dream of an independent nation to be called BIAFRA. The agitators are convinced about their arguments that the Nigerian Nation has been unfair to them and that having a country of their own is the best and only solution.
The response of the federal government has been firm and decisive. We are already witnessing loss of lives as a result of the current agitation, a development that must be carefully resolved before it gets out of hand. There are other heated confrontations between different ethnic groups currently threatening to set the country on fire. The recent conflict between some Hausas and Yorubas at the popular Mile 12 food market in Lagos and the killings of Agatu farmers by some Fulani Herdsmen are cases that cannot be ignored.
Keeping the unity
The purpose of this article is not to disparage, support or even analyse the case for Biafra as put up by IPOB, MASSOB and their supporters. Rather, the aim is to highlight the strength that is inherent in our cultural diversity and make a case for keeping the country together to maximise the potentials of our nation.
There is no doubt that Nigeria has been badly governed over the years and some of the causes of the bad governance can be traced to the motley crowd of ethnic chauvinists who have been ruling us. It can also be argued that the structure of the government, particularly the seemingly unfair resource allocation procedure, is responsible for the unending entropy being generated in the nation. However, I want to stress the case that poor and ineffective leadership has been the main problem of our nation and that division along ethnic lines is not the solution. What is the guarantee that a nation made up of only Igbos, Yorubas or Hausas will be stable and prosperous? What was the relationship among the Igbos (and in the same token, the Yorubas and the Hausas) before the colonialists’’ arrival? It was wars, incessant wars, among the tiny kingdoms spread all over.
Learning from others
If we had had the right leaders from 1955 to date, Nigeria would have been transformed into the country of our dream. Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural country that was blessed with a visionary leader in LEE KUAN YEW. He turned Singapore into an economic powerhouse despite the lack of any significant natural resources. He created an environment which allows human ingenuity to thrive. He was not an ethnic leader who could only work with people from his village, using them as fronts to fritter away the country’s resources.
Approximately 71 per cent of Dubai’s population are expatriates mostly of Asian origin but the Arab Emirate is prosperous because the leaders have vision that goes beyond massaging the ego of ethnic jingoists. Today, Nigerians flock to Dubai for holidays, investment in properties and also to buy assorted items for sales back home.
Canada has special programmes for immigrants because of the added value that they bring to the nation. Nigerians scrambled every year for American Visa lottery and when successful, move with their entire family to a strange land where they hope to live out their dreams. If the different peoples that populate these countries had been so intolerant of themselves, how would it be possible for us to go there now for education, relaxation and business?
Nigeria’s diversity isn’t a weakness. That seems to be what it has been turned into by leaders that are bereft of vision and inclusive purpose. We can do better in future than we did in the past if we leverage our strengths.
I truly believe in this nation. We’ve tried the other approach; it’s time to do things differently. Let us give ourselves a chance to survive and prosper. The chance for success is higher if we can define a common vision and leverage the strengths of the individual groups.
God bless Nigeria!