I applaud President Buhari’s courageous and focused assault on the hideous evil of corruption. I believe that if he succeeds with it, he would give our country some moral strength and a fair chance to return to the path of socio-economic progress.
But that is not all that our country needs. Our country’s most important need is to find ways to be a stable country – to find ways to make our hundreds of nationalities live together in reasonable harmony as members of one country. It can be done. Many multi-nation countries like ours – such as India, Switzerland, Britain in its own way, and others – have done it or are doing it with reasonable degrees of success. Without finding a reasonably broadly acceptable solution to this problem, we are not likely ever to make Nigeria a stable country; in fact, we doom our country to continued instability, conflicts and probable ultimate break-up. President Buhari is the President of Change and Hope that Nigeria has long needed and desired. He must not continue to appear to be unaware of, or to be ignoring, or to be evading, this fundamental problem.
This fundamental problem is not peculiar to Nigeria; it is common to virtually all Black African countries. And it is because no Black African country has found a broadly acceptable solution to it that virtually all Black African countries are forever going through turmoil and conflicts. And the reason no African country has found a solution to it is that African leaders, in general, do not accept fact as fact concerning this problem and deal with it as reasonable humans should.
The root of this fundamental problem is that Black Africa is peculiarly a land of mostly small nationalities. After its three largest nationalities (the Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and Igbo of Nigeria) and a few sizeable ones, the remaining thousands of Black Africa’s nationalities are very small – many not more than a few hundreds of thousands, or even only tens of thousands, in population.
With this minute ethno-linguistic fragmentation of the Black African sub-continent, virtually every Black African country of our times comprises tens of nationalities. Nigeria, the largest in population, with some 170 million people, has over 300 nationalities – of which the three largest share about 130 million. Clearly, over 100 of Nigerian nationalities have populations of only a few hundred thousand or even less each. The small Republic of Benin next door, with a population of about eight million, is home to about 40 nationalities. Tanzania, with a population of about 38 million people, has about 120 nationalities.
Therefore, no matter how Black Africa had organised itself into new modern countries at the beginning of the last century, this fundamental problem would have been indeed a difficult reality to handle – since almost all countries would have needed to contain many nationalities. But, in fact, and unfortunately, Black Africa’s organisation into our modern countries actually happened in the worst way imaginable. It happened through conquest, control and direction by European imperialists who had no respect whatsoever for Black African peoples. In the process, these European imperialists compounded and confounded Black Africa’s fundamental problem. They twisted and mangled this problem, and now it is a tenacious nightmare for all the countries, and all the peoples, of Black Africa. Approaching African peoples with deep disrespect, the European creators of our modern countries simply trampled down our various nationalities, cut boundaries through the homelands of countless nationalities, and created new countries in such ways as to make room for little or no likelihood of cohesion or stability ever.
To convey some picture of this sordid disrespect, let’s quote statements of two participants in the creation of our countries. In 1884-5, representatives of leading European countries met in Berlin in Germany to share Africa among them. One of those representatives later wrote: “We have been engaged in drawing lines on maps where no white man’s foot has ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we have never known where the rivers and lakes and mountains were”. One British official who took part in creating the eastern boundaries of Nigeria wrote later: “In those days, we just took a blue pencil and ruler, and we put it down at Old Calabar, and drew that blue line to Yola. I recollect thinking when I was sitting having an audience with the Emir (of Yola) surrounded by his tribe, that it was a very good thing that he did not know that I, with a blue pencil, had drawn a line through his territory”.
That is the ignorant, disrespectful and shoddy manner in which our country, Nigeria, was created – and in which all other countries of Black Africa were created. That is also the ignorant and disrespectful manner in which the internal boundaries of our Nigeria were created. When we feel like making noises about our Nigeria or about our North, or whatever, we need to remind ourselves of these sorry pictures. Starkly put, our country and its international and internal colonial boundaries are one package of ignorant and presumptuous errors. They are a package of wounds that still pain many of our nationalities.
This does not mean, of course, that Nigeria is impossible to keep together and to build into a successful country. What it does mean, however, is that those who manage the affairs of Nigeria must keep consciously aware of the fundamental realities of the country we call Nigeria. It means that we must consciously nurture a culture of respect for every nationality, large or small. It means that we must be committed to a true federation, and to a federal structure and order based on respect for our nationalities. With these, we can make success of Nigeria; without them, we cannot. President Buhari needs to show that he knows these things.
President Buhari must show that he knows what is known by a total foreigner like Elliot P. Skinner who wrote, “African countries will continue to be racked by conflicts unless leaders agree about how to govern their multi-faceted nation-states and how to distribute their economic resources equitably. Without compromise that would ensure “ethnic justice”, neither so-called “liberal democracy” nor any other species of government will succeed in Africa”.
In short, no matter what else we do, no matter how successfully we suppress corruption under Buhari’s leadership, we still must provide a broadly acceptable solution to the fundamental problem created by the fact that our country is a country of hundreds of different ancient nationalities. To make a success of Nigeria at all, we must provide solutions acceptable to our various nationalities.
Some of our most prominent citizens think that the answer to this enormous problem is to keep asking us Nigerians to think of ourselves only as Nigerians and cease thinking of ourselves as Yoruba, Ijaw, Hausa-Fulani, Ibibio, Igbo, Kanuri, etc. Some think it is something worthy of pride to keep telling us that they see themselves as Nigerian leaders only and detest being seen as leaders among their own nationalities. It does not amount to a solution.