November 25, 2020

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A nation divided

6 min read

Segun Gbadegesin

 

LET us grant that the aspiration of Nigeria’s founding fathers was to build a united nation. Our undeniable reality now is a virulent division. And between this reality of our being and the becoming of our aspiration, there is a yawning gulf that has refused to be bridged. The roots of our division are to be found in the length, width, and depth of this gulf. My interest today is to navigate this vast chasm between reality and aspiration.

Many readers would agree with my summation of the matter above. But a lot of thoughtful people would also have good reasons to object. Presumably, both sides would have no problem with the reality of division as I express it here. Their grouse is likely about my statement of the aspiration to unity. If indeed, we have that aspiration for unity, why do we appear more divided now than we were sixty years ago?

This question is at the heart of the various movements of discontent across the country in recent times. The reasoning seems to be that if unity is turning out to be a mirage, and we are each suffering in various ways for lack of it, we can go our separate ways. It is as if the unity that eludes us at the national level is waiting for us patiently to effortlessly grab at the sub-national levels. The hope, buoyed by this reasoning, is pretty satisfying and invigorating. It has been the motivating force for many who have been disappointed by the current state of the nation.

The reasoning is not a 21st century invention as it has always been an integral part of our national experience. In the wake of the January 1966 military coup, the North felt betrayed and many voices were raised for secession. It was the rationale for the COR State movement. It was the reason for the Biafra secession and the civil war to stop it. In the wake of the annulment of June 1993 election, it was the motivation for the various Yoruba movements and the clamor for Odudua Republic.

The point, then, is that there is a tendency, almost universal and natural, it may be argued, to want to find birds of your own feather when you are with birds of different variety that create a tense environment. And for a long time, Nigeria has been a tense environment for many human birds. Furthermore, however, many would argue, rightly I think, that you don’t even need to be in a tense environment to appreciate the desirability of flocking with birds of your own feather. There is something that is attractive and satisfying about it.

I suggest, however, that the chasm between our reality of division and our aspirational unity can be accounted for by appeal to something more than our sub-national differences. I plead not to be misunderstood. I am not suggesting that sub-national differences have no role to play in our division. I am, however, arguing that its role is indirect and something or other things more fundamental are at stake and need to be understood.

Let me put this more succinctly: difference is not division and sameness is not unity. Identity is neither good nor bad. It is value neutral. But it can be mismanaged when it is deployed and exploited for political advantage. This is what is morally repugnant and politically dangerous. Just as a mismanaged difference can engender an irreparable division, so a mismanaged sameness can jeopardize desirable unity. Without thoughtful management, nothing is guaranteed. Our story has been one of mismanagement of what many have come to decry as the artificial character of our national existence. If I am correct, the culprit is the mismanagement rather than the existential artificiality.

The point of the previous paragraph can be made better with another illustration. On one hand, we have made much of kinship, language and culture as part of the defining character of nationality, and as such, they are useful building blocks for national unity. But it has not always worked out because there is hardly a completely homogeneous nationality.  On the other hand, our recent experience of youths across the country, paying no attention to language, religion, or kinship relations of others in the movement, chanting #EndSars in protest against police brutality, should tell us something about their understanding of the roots of national division.

It is tempting to dismiss this observation. We might construe the illustrations as misleading because it compares apples and oranges. The youth agitation against an oppressive instrument of the state cannot be compared with a whole nationality agitating for a right to self-determination. Now, this must be conceded. A nationality can certainly assert a right to self-determination as an independent entity based on its perceived difference. It doesn’t have to defend such a struggle by appeal to any grievance. But there is a reason that the international community reserves a right to recognize such demands.

More pertinent, the founding fathers of this nation thought wide and deep among their own peoples and in their various national constitutional conferences before they reached a consensus on coming together and agreeing to stand in brotherhood, despite the differences in tongue and tribe. That agreement was predicated on an expectation, the expectation of a relentless sustenance of the original purpose of a perpetual standing in brotherhood.

Now, a common understanding of brotherhood or sisterhood is that it is a relationship between brothers/sisters or close friends. More significantly, it is a relationship characterized by a feeling of kinship. In other words, even absent an objective kinship relationship, there is a feeling of kinship. It is a relationship that the Yoruba refer to as ore bi omo iya—a friend like a maternal blood brother/sister. Such a friend, like a maternal blood brother/sister, indeed like spouses following their vows, see their partners as extensions of themselves. If you would not cheat yourself, you will not cheat your friend. If you would not self-oppress, you will not oppress your brother/sister. This was the mind of the founding fathers about the nation they assented to establish.

The 1960 national anthem, though composed by a foreigner, spoke eloquently to this theme of justice and truth in each of its three stanzas. While the first stanza emphasized brotherhood, the second stanza referred to our flag as “a symbol that truth and justice reign”; honoring the flag “in peace and battle”, we count it as gain, “to hand on to our children a banner without stain”. The final stanza is a prayer that the God of creation will grant our request to “build a nation where no man is oppressed” so that “with peace and plenty Nigeria may be blessed.”

During the struggle against the annulment of the June 12 1993 election, the World Congress of Free Nigerians, a coalition of prodemocracy movements, insisted on using this 1960 national anthem not just in defiance of the military but simply because it was more meaningful as a reminder of the hopes and aspirations of the founding fathers.

We are divided now more than at any time in the history of the nation because we have abandoned the original purpose of building a nation where no man/woman is oppressed. We have failed to honor our flag which is no longer a symbol that truth and justice reign and has been serially stained with the blood of the innocent. No wonder peace and plenty have eluded us.

What divides us is not our different identities whether that be of kinship or religion. We are divided by reason of wealth versus poverty, education versus ignorance, employment versus unemployment, health versus disease.

We are divided because over the years, privileged citizens in various positions of authority at every level have used their positions to negate brotherhood/sisterhood. They politicize ethnicity. They are well-educated, but they promote ignorance. They are healthy, but they are responsible for the diseased states of fellow citizens. They are well-fed but they cause the hunger of millions. They negatively impact citizens across ethnic nationalities and religions.

Give these victims their due and you can be assured of national unity.