A Few Thoughts on National Unity and Identity
By Keem Belo-Osagie
There are many who refer to the amalgamation documents as if they tell us something about the unnatural nature of present day Nigeria. For me, the amalgamation document is simply a document of some historical interest. It doesn’t say anything to me about whether Nigeria should or should not be one. Briefly put, these are my rough views. I invite other views from fellow countrymen and women.
1. The British declared a Southern Nigeria state. That was an artificial creation. It created a Lagos colony. That was an artificial creation. It merged the two into a Southern Nigeria. That was artificial. The British then merged a Southern Nigeria with a Northern Nigeria. That was artificial. I do not believe that the amalgamation of North and South Nigeria was any more artificial that the British grouping together of various groups into a Southern Nigeria.
2. There is a common misperception that there is such a thing as a natural nation as opposed to an artificial nation. There is no such thing as a natural nation in my mind . Differences and commonalities are selected and defined and heightened by elites and leaders. If you look at virtually any country, you will see a history of differences and commonalities. Nigeria is no different. Outstanding Leadership brings together people by stressing commonalities and uniting with a vision and provide purpose that enables us all to move forward together. Italy was for 30 centuries plus fiercely antagonistic city states. Germany was a collection of Kingdoms. India was created by the British, uniting many kingdoms. Spain arose after the marriage of two people heading different kingdoms. China was not united until the 20th century. The only country in the world that had a single tribe, a single religion was Somalia. It has become one of the worst examples of state failure. Somali leaders discovered and stressed new differences. They stressed clans within tribe and that became the dividing line.
3. I believe that the search for a natural basis for the division of the country based on a common identity is a doomed exercise. Because identities are socially constructed. You can continue to subdivide ad infinitum. Agitation for state creation has shown this.
4. My father used to tell me that when he grew up he was told that he was a Bini man. He later on arrival at Kings College became a Westerner. (Western Region) . He then became a Mid Westerner in1963. He was later renamed a Bendelite. His son Keem started as a Bendelite and then later became an Edo man. And now in his old age, he is a South South man. All these identities are fluid and made by men and women. I have decided to be a Nigerian and an African. I have no reason to question that choice. I have embraced it for all time.
5. My father used to tell me that even the words Igbo and Yoruba are relatively recent terms. He told me that when he was in Kings College, a man told you he was from Onitsha or Aba, and he referred to himself as an Easterner. He hardly referred to himself as Ibgo man. Other friends would refer to themselves as Egbas or Ijebus, not as Yorubas. If we had a leader like Nkrumah, or Nyerere, or Nehru who stressed national commonalities, we would have made progress as a country. Instead, we had leaders who united the Ijebus and Egbas into Sons of Oduduwa. We had leaders who united the competing kingdoms of Bornu, Katsina, Zaria, Kano into a North. They had competed for centuries. The villages and towns of Onitsha and Aba were turned into an Igbo nation. They did not think on a large enough scale.
6. Our leaders in the 1940s and 1950s made choices. There was nothing natural about the decisions they took. The divisions they met were no greater than in Ghana, China, India,Tanzania or Uganda. They simply lacked a national or continental vision. We must not repeat their mistakes.
7. The failure of Nigeria is, for me, not so much a failure of structure but more of values and vision. The study of businesses and political systems confirms that values always outweigh structures as the determinant of success. My time in university over the last few years has led me to the same conclusion. That is why I am skeptical of the current rush for restructuring along lines of identity. Or rather a supposed common identity.
8. We should be able to have multiple identities and a common Nigerian identity. I do not think it is too late. In fact, I think that heading anywhere else is the beginning of a never ending set of subdivisions birthed and accompanied by violence until we become 20 or 30 Benin or Togo republics. Irrelevant. And still badly governed.
Keem Belo-Osagie writes from USA