Monday 15 August 2016

#MustRead: Nigeria is a distant country to its citizens

by: Obo Effanga

Our country, Nigeria, is a distant land to many of its citizens. I do not know when we lost it, but I know the country was not always this far away from the people. It is true that someone once referred to it as a mere geographical expression. But it was an expression the people felt part of and showed it in various ways. I say so because I have lived long enough in this country to know it. And for that older era of the glorious past I did not witness, I have read about through authentic historical documentation.

We did not lose the real Nigeria in one day. We lost it in a gradual process that lasted several years. There is no doubt that the de-Nigerianisation of the citizens has been exacerbated and fast-forwarded by modernity. In this age of freedom and the ease with which we can express such freedom, especially through the social media and even deceive unwary compatriots, individualism can easily overshadow the communal. And in the face of a weak central authority, many citizens have drummed up allegiances to ethnic and regional authorities and sentiments.

More than a century ago, there was no Nigeria; a place so called, I mean. What we had were pockets of people in pockets of settlements across the land. They interacted as individuals, as families and as clans, in peaceful co-existence. Conflicts often arose and were resolved with minimal stress. Some conflicts however got protracted over time but that did not stop the communication and interactions. Although the people lived as individuals and families, there was always something that brought them together – the common good. The need to maintain and sustain common facilities and wealth and to guarantee the safety of all necessarily brought everyone together willy-nilly. So, the interest of the clan often trumped personal interests.

The people congregated in public spaces to agree on the advancement of their homesteads with people trading off their personal interests and comfort for communal goals. People did not always interact and work together because they loved to. Sometimes, it was simply because, those were the persons they found themselves living with, in the same settlement or locality; so they just had to live with the reality.

In fact, there were no large ethnic groups as we have them today. The very idea of the present large and seemingly oppressive ethnic groups, were later-day creations through interactions and eventual fossilisation. Historians will tell us that what is now called Yoruba, previously existed as different peoples like the Ijebu, Egba, Oyo, Ijesha, Ekiti. It was the same with the present expressions like “Hausa-Fulani”. Perhaps, the fossilisation into the present major ethnic groups started out as relationships of convenience to ward off external aggression or to stand up against opponents for access to economic advantages. It must have been similar to the very way we today hear of expressions like “Niger Delta”, “South-South”, “Middle Belt” or “North Central”, mentioned as if they were a unified, coherent and single ethnicity or people. At best, they are relationships or marriages of convenience.

Over time, these ethnic nationalities had become so used to interactions with others that they even had names and descriptions for each people they interacted with. The advent of the colonialists and the administration of the lands and populations they met only helped to accelerate interactions and cohesion among Nigerian ethnicities. The colonialists did not create or force the interactions, as some people try to assert. The intercourse among these groups already existed prior to colonisation. What the colonialists did was simply to facilitate the fusing in order to guarantee them ease of administering a ‘conquered people’.

Why people deride the amalgamation of what had become the Northern and the Southern Protectorates into a single country called Nigeria in 1914 still beats me. This is because I hardly hear people complain about the fact that even the two protectorates mentioned above were also artificial creations of the colonialists. Pray, by what agreement did the Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Ikwerre, Urhobo, Ibibio, Annang, Bini, Bekwarra and Ijaw etc. of southern Nigeria agree to be grouped into the Southern Protectorate or the Nupe, Hausa, Igala, Birom, Fulani etc. agree to form part of the Northern Protectorate? These ethnic nationalities were not consulted no doubt. But they worked harmoniously until relationships went sour.

From all accounts, on the emergence of an amalgamated Nigeria in 1914 and even after the attainment of Independence in 1960, Nigerian people were more united than they are today and the allegiance to a single country was also higher than now. The struggle for Independence saw the working together of citizens from the different nationalities that make up Nigeria. The country then also reflected the interesting mix of citizens. It was such that people of different ethnicities found themselves living peacefully anywhere in the country and carrying out their livelihoods. The civil service, even at the regional levels, was populated by citizens, not necessarily indigenes. That was how my late father, of Efik extraction, could serve as teacher in different schools in what we now know as Niger and Kaduna states, under the employment of the then Northern Regional Government.

Fast-forward to today. State civil services hardly employ “non-indigenes”. Even where new states are created, the new states are forced to send the civil servants to their states of “origin”, whether or not such is convenient for the workers. Even a woman who marries across the artificial boundaries of states is often left in the lurch by being discriminated against in both her state of “origin” and where her husband is from.

Even if state civil services do so, one doesn’t expect the federal civil or public service to also discriminate. Unfortunately, the work force of most Federal Government establishments reflects the location of the office. The gravest of such anomaly is in the federal universities where efforts are made to ensure that the vice-chancellors are “indigenous” to the states of location. Thus, we no longer have the pleasure of seeing an Eni Njoku as the vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos, Kenneth Dike in University of Ibadan or Emmanuel Ayandele in University of Calabar. Even the admission processes make it difficult for non-indigenes. We are therefore inadvertently raising ethnic and regional leaders and academics in place of nationalists. This is because we focus too much on “indigenes” as opposed to “citizens”. Even the constitution focuses on that in the appointment of public officials such as ministers.

And because Nigerians are more likely to access benefits on account of their “indigeneity” rather than of their citizenship, there is a convenient slip into our ethnic cocoons to assert self. The country therefore remains a distant land we go to fight over opportunities and bring home to our ethnic and regional homesteads. And whenever citizens get into the national stage, those from their ethnic and regional backgrounds remind them that they are occupying the slots of their ethnic locality, thus expecting them to work for those sectional interests, while holding a position in trust for the entire country.

We need therefore to a country that emphasises what it means to be a citizen rather than indigene of component units. To do so, the centre must promote inclusion of all citizens. There must be equality and equity in the way resources are accessed and used. The country must protect every citizen, wherever they are located (within or outside the country). This would not happen suddenly but we need to start somewhere. It would happen when we have selfless leadership with pan-Nigerian view, not leaders who emerge on account of “zoning”. While hoping for that, we also need to raise a new set of citizens who see Nigeria as their own country, not a place they resort to only for opportunity while holding allegiances wholly to their ethnic nationalities.

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