On May 31st, 2016, at this very venue, I chaired the public presentation of a book by Chido Onumah with the eye-catching title: We are all Biafrans. In the book, Chido used Biafra as a metaphor for the legitimate feelings of marginalization by diverse segments of Nigerians that cut across the country and the growing agitations by many thoughtful Nigerians for a reset, for a less controlling, less suffocating, and less dictatorial centre. More than five years later it is obvious that Chido’s admonition that we needed to fix Nigeria, by heeding those calls, in order to avoid sleep-walking our way towards disaster has not been heeded. Rather, and as a result, we seem to be sprinting full speed towards disaster.
Yes, the Chibok girls had been kidnapped and held in captivity 7 years ago. Yes, conflicts between herders and farmers had been with us before 2016. But who would have thought that our country would become a haven for kidnappers and all manner of bandits to the extent that their nefarious activities would become a major industry? They have been allowed to operate so openly and brazenly that it would surprise no one if they applied for registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission and listing on the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Five years ago, the Abuja – Kaduna Road was not a virtual no-go area. The South- East was not a virtual war-zone, and Amotekun was not needed to protect lives and property in the South West. These are among the clearest evidence that the issues that were the focal point of the book that brought us here more than five years ago have become even worse.
The calls for restructuring have not been heeded. Constitutional provisions on federal character have been ignored and even symbolic gestures to make all groups feel that they are part of the Nigerian family have been scorned as though they are a sign of weakness. As a result, the agitations that turned more groups into “Biafrans” have become even more strident and, in some cases, violent.
The book for which we are gathered here today – Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices, goes a long distance in completing the circle started with We are all Biafrans. It is an edited work with contributions from 60 Nigerians from a variety of backgrounds, callings, and ideological viewpoints. I will leave the detailed review to the book reviewer, but permit me to point out that the contributors, while not agreeing on everything, have a number of key things in common. These are their love for Nigeria, their desire that Nigeria remains one united country, and their demonstration that Nigeria, in its current form, is not working for Nigerians and needs to be fixed urgently so it can do so.
That fixing or restructuring will help in our nation-building project because it will help to foster a sense of nationhood out of our disparate groups, cultures, religions, and regions. It is obvious that a country is not necessarily a nation. Nationhood has to be forged through what we do as a country, and leadership is critical in the process of nation-building. Leaders give direction and the example they set determines the extent to which their followers will trust them. Without trust, there’s no leadership. Without leadership, a country drifts and becomes more difficult to forge into a nation.
Some contributors to the book have gone as far as to say that development will continue to elude us until we are able to forge that sense of nationhood, that is, until we deepen our nation-building process. This is understandable because of the growing frustrations we all feel at the slow pace of development and reversals in nation-building.
Let me say, however, that both theoretically and historically such sequencing is not entirely correct. Development cannot wait for nation-building. In fact, neither development nor nation-building needs 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.
In my view, we must restructure our country in a manner that allows various segments to develop at their own pace and not be held back by the centre or other segments. Developed segments will spur development in other segments because what they do well will attract the attention of others. That may make a Nigerian union more attractive and nation-building easier. Our poor nation-building record should not be an excuse for developmental inaction or backwardness.
There is nothing in the current state of our nation-building that prevents Adamawa, Kano, Lagos or Rivers States from enumerating the number of existing and prospective primary and secondary school students and properly planning educational development in their respective states for the next five or ten years: – classroom blocks to be built, teachers to be hired and/or trained, textbooks to acquire, salaries to be paid, university spaces that would be required in the years to come, and so on. The same goes for roads and bridges, hospitals, and water supply. If they do these well wouldn’t Taraba and Benue States copy them? If they do them well wouldn’t Anambra and Kogi States emulate them?
Nation-building is not just what elites or government officials do. Trade, social and cultural exchanges by ordinary people are critical components of nation-building. In fact, you cannot build a nation out of people who do not have meaningful interaction. And to facilitate meaningful interaction among peoples you need infrastructural development, including roads, bridges, ports, markets, parks and so on. In these efforts governments lead the way although the private sector has important roles to play once the government does the heavy lifting, provides incentives, and sets the rules for competition.
Nothing in our imperfect union prevents Imo, Anambra, and Abia States from cooperating on infrastructure provisioning. In fact, I would argue that part of what is holding back our nation-building is the lack of what we call development. Would anybody really argue that illiteracy, poverty, lack of opportunities and hope are not contributing to the insurgencies that are tearing our country apart? What about the divisive rhetoric that have followed those insurgencies and agitations as well as the banditry that are now rampant? Didn’t the school leavers and graduates of the 1960s and 1970s, who had easier access to jobs and other opportunities, have more faith in Nigeria than the school leavers and graduates of today who lack those opportunities?
If the North, as a region, and Nigeria as a nation, have done enough to check the encroachment of the Sahara Desert and the drying out of Lake Chad, would the trajectory of the insurgency in the Northeast and the banditry across the north have been different? Very likely. If our youths are in school or gainfully employed, they would not be available in large numbers for recruitment into extremist or criminal organizations. And, as we know, an organization that fails to recruit new members rarely lasts long.
Some years ago, the late distinguished economist, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade observed that his generation has the dubious distinction of having had better opportunities than their children. The same is the case with my generation, and it makes me very sad. So, while our nation-building has been imperfect and wobbly, it is not and should not be a good excuse for our very poor effort at development. Development inspires pride, hope, patriotism, emulation and is a great magnet for patriots.
When we start developing with what we have, more of our people will want to identify with the country, love the country and commit their lives to the country. When that happens, especially with fairness and justice, nation-building accelerates, however imperfectly. This is why I find it amusing when people declare Nigeria’s unity as fixed and non-negotiable while doing everything in their power to destroy that fragile unity. Nothing in the relationships among peoples is fixed for eternity. You cannot declare your marriage as non-negotiable while doing everything to sow seeds of discord in that same marriage. Countries can be created by force. You can whip groups of people into forming a country but you cannot whip them into forming a nation. Nations are built through conscious or even unconscious agreement by peoples who believe that being together is, on balance, more beneficial than being apart.
Development and nation-building do not happen by themselves. They are guided by people, especially leaders, thoughtful, insightful, and visionary leaders who are willing to make sacrifices and reach compromises. When people see their leaders making those efforts genuinely, and experience improvements in their lives, they are likely to follow. Over the past six years the leadership of this country at the federal level hardly embarked on nation-building. They may have been making (utterly confusing and unproductive) efforts at economic development. However, it can be rightly argued that they have been un-building the nation by taking conscious and deliberate actions that not only make nation-building more difficult but also undo the achievements made in that regard by previous administrations.
As we all know there were deliberate attempts made since the 1960s to forge a nation out of Nigeria: states creation, federal character, the NYSC, power rotation, unity schools, and multiple federal agencies. However imperfect, these were genuine attempts at giving each segment of the country a sense of belonging and a semblance of justice and equity and promote interactions among our peoples. All it has taken is one administration in six short years to tear up the fabric of that unity and make more Nigerians lose faith in Nigeria and question the rationale for having one united country. One lesson there for all of us is the need to always be vigilant and be prepared to defend our democracy, for it is through the democratic process that we can more easily promote the unity of our country.
I strongly believe that Nigeria can and will remain one strong and united nation with significant strides in economic development to improve the lives of our peoples. However, we must not take it for granted. We must work hard at it and make necessary compromises to accommodate one another. Hard work and compromises are necessary for restructuring the country, especially in terms of the relationship between the centre and the constituent states and between the public sector and the private sector. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; there are numerous examples of success from around the world for us to borrow from while adapting them to our local conditions.
Being Chairman’s Remarks by Atiku Abubakar, GCON, Former Vice President Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the Public Presentation of the book, Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices, held at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja, 19 August, 2021.