“No one lays claim to Nigeria.” It was a statement made casually by my boss at work, yet it carried such weight in my young mind. Perhaps this is the worst sin of all that we leisurely walk through our country like it doesn’t belong to us, casually engaging in tribalism and nepotism as we drift along.
We need to be reminded that in the history of Nigeria as a colonial construct, some 250 ethnic groups made up of people who speak over 500 indigenous languages were pooled together to make a country, in the hope that, eventually, they would all be molded into a nation state.
We would recall that as far back as 1939, Sir Bernard Henry Bourdillon, the British colonial governor of Uganda and Nigeria, initiated Nigerian federalism by dividing the country along the three major ethnic groups — Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa — into regional councils and provinces. However, over the next four years, he was unable to complete the development of a federal structure before his departure from Nigeria.
The resultant effect was a separation of the southern provinces into eastern and western Nigeria, leaving the north largely untouched. Nonetheless, the seed of federalism was sown and, by the 1950s, there was a clear ethnic structural template of division into northern, western and eastern regions. With this restructuring came an overwhelming consciousness of ethnicity, and it would become the basis on which politics, administration and economic policies would be formed.
Ethnicity to the average Nigerian is a way of forging ahead in the midst of competition, scoring points rather than actual applicable knowledge. We hardly have the bonds to forge a country. Rather, we are loyal to our families and, at most, our ethnic groups. Is this a by-product of deleting history from our school curricula?
Those born after 1980 would scarcely be aware of the Biafran War and the scar it left on the country, pitting regions against one another. How do we heal when we barely know who we are in the context of other people, with surnames just as difficult as ours, if only of a different origin? People who look just like us, but with whom we are afraid to engage because the tribe is a sharp divide between us?
We have chosen for so long to exclude the teaching of history from our nationwide curricula. It is little wonder that when the average 15 to 30-year-old is asked about basic knowledge of the country, such as when Nigeria was declared a nation, we stumble over these supposedly simple facts and then uncomfortably change the topic of conversation. We should be livid with rage.
We would choose people from other cultures — non-Nigerians over our own people — any day and time. We would choose to marry them, engage in businesses with outsiders, proudly showing them off as our allies and friends. We show to foreigners a level of respect that those with whom share a nationality can never dream of receiving from us — of us giving it to them. Could it be that we readily embrace the culture of those other nationalities because we identify with it?
Are we really and truly one country? In the words of Tafawa Balewa, the country’s first prime minister, Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper since 1914, when the northern and southern provinces were amalgamated. In reality, there is no sense of belonging to the nation state.
It seems like there has been a calculated attempt to wipe any remnant knowledge of what Nigeria should represent from our minds, and we are all left wandering in a wilderness of sorts. Religion has become a form of escapism for some, and this perhaps works for the older generation. But the younger generation, exposed to newer realities and practices, pushes back continually against these societal constructs. Not even the love of God, which we are all eager to identify with, will keep us from asking these hard questions.
What has this done to us? For one, an average Nigerian child and a Nigerian-American kid living in the US sail in the same shallow waters when it comes to navigating Nigerian history. We are well acquainted with the history of black Americans. Our own we know nothing of.
Many of the children of the elite, and not so elite, are encouraged, when faced with the decision whether to stay in the country or leave, to build a life elsewhere, to emigrate. Nigerian media is rife with news about the minister of labor stating that there are enough doctors in Nigeria and, as such, the current trend in emigration of medical practitioners can continue. As we emigrate, and some make the bold decision of staying behind, we are left in a wake of fear, because not one of us has really charted a course for the nation. At best, we chart courses for ourselves, within or without the nation.
The concern is this: With the current trend of emigration, what happens to the country? Will these emigrants be inspired to return home? We could take a cue from countries — where the better-off left to acquire an education, to gain exposure and experience, but later returned to their home country to rebuild it — by unraveling the underlying motivation behind their return.
There has to be something to bind us to our country if there is hope of a mass homecoming ever happening. We would need a strong dose of loyalty, a sense of belonging and duty to our homeland — otherwise we would be leaving the country to remain a struggling nation, without any hope of structural civilization.
Writing about Nigeria’s national identity may not directly elicit change, but it might awaken something in us, spark a conversation we all need to be having about our obligation to love the country of our birth. This is something we were not necessarily brought up to do, but have to train ourselves to do nonetheless. We lay no claim to that which we have no remembrance of. If this narrative is ever to change, then it must begin with us knowing the history we call our own.
We would have to gently remind one another that Nigeria is a nation state and not a nation, in the sense that a group of people that form the country aren’t of the same tribe, language and religion. It is logical that going forward, we should focus on establishing equity amongst members of this nation state instead of clamoring for equality that isn’t feasible in a country so diverse in ethnicity and cultural values.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.