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The Political Manipulation of Nigerians -Simon Kolawole

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Nigeria is 57, going by the year of independence, and the consensus in every corner is that we can be, and should have been, better than this. I have not met a single person who said this is the best we can be. Our economic and development indices at independence are largely better than what we have today, but the real deal is that we were such a promising nation in 1960 that it was thought we would dominate Africa with the speed at which we were developing. It is a fitting tribute, isn’t it, that the immortal Lee Kwan Yew, the man behind the Singapore success story, saw Nigeria as a model to be emulated when his country became independent from Malaysia in 1965.

If things had worked out well for Nigeria, especially if the stupendous petrodollars gushing into our treasury had been intelligently managed, our story would have been significantly different today. We would not be talking about thousands of kilometres of bad roads, we would not be lamenting epileptic power supply, we would not be crying over hospitals that are basically torture centres, we would not be groaning about third-rate quality of instruction and infrastructure in our schools, and we would not be moaning that millions of people are homeless. Poverty rates would be low. Literacy rate would be high. We would be an economy built on production and productivity.

The biggest question as we clock 57, at least going by the headlines, is the unity of Nigeria. There is a trending agitation for “restructuring”, “true federalism” and “Biafra” which, we are made to believe, hold the key to the development of Nigeria. Many think Nigeria is like this — underdeveloped and conflict-prone — because of the amalgamation of “strange bedfellows” in 1914, or because we run a “military constitution” aka “unitary constitution”. Some even blame our multi-ethnicity, maintaining that until we are broken up along ethnic lines, our problems will persist. But, at least, there seems to be a consensus that corruption is hurting our development.

 

For those who say Nigerians cannot live together, I have always begged to differ. Having travelled around Nigeria for years, having interacted intensively with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, having observed Nigerians at close quarters, I have always concluded that we are impressively integrating socially and culturally. Ordinary Nigerians have learnt how to live with one another. Inter-ethnic marriage is what we usually give as an example, but I am also enamoured by the culinary intercourse — delicacies such as suya, isi ewu, amala and edikaikong always leave a sweet taste in the mouths of Nigerians across the divides.

What’s more, words such as “ego”, “oga”, “oya” and “shikena” have successfully crossed lingual boundaries and become part and parcel of everyone’s daily conversations. I don’t even know the origin of some words anymore. An example is “garri”. Is it Igbo? Is it Yoruba? Is it Edo? That is how far our cultural integration has gone since amalgamation and independence. Our sartorial preferences have also crossed ethnic boundaries: you see dresses such as “senator” and “agbada” being worn by northerners and southerners, Muslims and Christians alike. For those who think we hate one another with passion, their evidence is inconclusive.

The entertainment industry excites me on the viability of the Nigerian project. Our home movies typically feature people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. You see Igbo and Edo actors and actresses featuring in Yoruba-language movies in a country where we are made to understand we hate each other. In music, cross-cultural collaborations are the in-thing. Artistes like Onyeka Onwenu, Sonny Okosuns, Christy Essien Igbokwe and Funmi Adams did an enormous job in the 1980s and 1990s promoting, in different languages, the one love that binds us together. In churches, worshippers switch from Igbo to Yoruba to Hausa to Urhobo to Ibibio songs like second nature.

I have long concluded that ordinary Nigerians do not have problem living with one another in spite of our differences. But because we are different along the lines of ethnicity, religion, ideology, history and politics, there will always be conflict. That is not peculiar to Nigeria. As I always say, there is no country in the world that does not have its own internal divisions, rivalries and flashpoints. Conflict is human nature. The real issue is the political management of diversity and conflict. Ultimately, it is the political leadership that has the responsibility of managing conflicts and potential conflicts to the best of their abilities.

Unfortunately, most unfortunately, while ordinary Nigerians have largely integrated culturally and have evolved ways of living together, they are daily being let down by the political elite who manipulate ethnic and religious sentiments for selfish ends. Those who control the airwaves have ceaselessly poisoned the minds of Nigerians against each other, stirring up sectional strife, stoking tension and promoting political messages that are designed mostly for their personal pecuniary benefits — under the pretext of fighting for “my people”. All said and done, who eventually benefits from “it is our turn”? The elite or the market women?

Sadly, our political elite, working hand-in-glove with their intellectual sidekicks, have successfully developed narratives that muddle up the real issues and becloud our reasoning. There is a popular claim that “military” constitution has hindered our development. This is absolutely false (although there is even the bigger falsehood that Nigeria’s constitution was written by the military, but I’m done with that argument). Anyone who has studied the history of the role the military played in the development of South Korea, and the role of civilian dictatorships in the development of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, will laugh off the claim. China is not even a liberal democracy!

To be clear, I do not recommend dictatorship for Nigeria, but neither will I support the narrow proposition that we can’t develop because of “lack of true federalism”. This is ridiculous. Norway, consistently ranked No. 1 on UNDP’s human development index (HDI), runs a unitary system. In fact, there is no resource control or derivation payment. All the oil revenue is managed by the central government. Yet Norway’s per capita income is $67,614, compared to $5,442 in the resource controlled-Nigeria. I do not propose a unitary system for Nigeria, but neither will I contribute to the claim that Nigeria cannot develop because of the supposedly “unitary” constitution.

So you know, 15 of the world’s top 20 most developed countries, according to the 2015 human development index, are: Norway, Denmark, Singapore, Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Sweden, Liechtenstein, UK, Japan, South Korea (formerly a federation), Israel and Luxembourg. What do they have in common? They ALL run a unitary system. The only “true federalism” countries in the top 20 are Australia, Germany, Switzerland, US and Canada. Next time somebody tells you “true federalism” or “regionalism” is the magic formula for development, ask them for the evidence. In fact, China runs a unitary system! The elite love to prey on our ignorance.

Nigeria has three major ethnic groups and we are often lectured that we cannot develop until we balkanise. But Norway has seven ethnic groups — Norwegian, Sami, Jew, Traveller, Forest Finn, Romani and Kven. They are not doing badly. There are over 300 ethnic groups in Malaysia; its per capita income is four times that of Nigeria. India has roughly 2,000 ethnic groups, and while it is a Hindu-majority country, the population of Muslims is about 172 million, almost equal to Nigeria’s population. India is not yet categorised as a developed country, but it is way ahead of Nigeria. It is an economy built on production and boasts of multinational companies in Tata, Ranbaxy and Infosys.

Frankly, I do not blame the ordinary people who cannot decode the unending political manipulation of ethnic and religious sentiments in Nigeria. I’m rather saddened, if not depressed, when those propagating the false narratives and half-truths about “true federalism” are the enlightened people. There is a glaring lack of sincerity. I need to emphasise, and I will keep doing this for the sake of clarity, that I am not saying the current system or structure of Nigeria does not need tinkering with. We definitely need to restructure the country. My point of departure, though, is the campaign that restructuring has to be along the lines of ethnicity, religion and natural resources.

I do not know of any country that developed simply because of “true federalism” or “regionalism”. I am still frantically researching that idea. But I can give plenty examples of countries that developed because of competent and patriotic leadership, with or without “true federalism”. I hope most Nigerians will come to this realisation someday. As we mark our 57th independence anniversary, I would propose that we rethink these inherited wisdoms that we have always failed to critically question. Those who direct the orchestra know how to make us sing their buzzwords, but a deeper reflection on our part will confirm that it is all politics. Before I forget, Happy Independence Day.

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