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The new country we need, by Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi

When I survey the state of the world, I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens when he wrote the following in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

It is the best of times for researchers, commentators, observers etc as events in all parts of the world fill the airwaves about Syria, Paris, Iraq, Mali, Maiduguri, Yola, Kenya, and the filth called presidential campaign in the United States. So much to comment upon. But the content of the events fills me with horror. World leaders are clueless about how to respond to challenges and fear seems to rule the world. It is indeed the worst of times. But, today, in this our own corner, we come to celebrate. At the back of my mind is the lamentation of a former foreign diplomat, who served in Nigeria, who told me “you Nigerians achieve so little but celebrate so much”. T

his is not the case on this occasion. We are not just celebrating a man, we are celebrating a Nigeria that once was, with the hope of a regeneration. In 1959, a young Ijaw boy (now a venerable old man), aged 24 years, left what is now Akwa Ibom, travelled to Ilorin, then Lagos, then Ibadan and then Zaria, back to Lagos and then back to Ibadan where he had stayed for the rest of his life. There was once a country (my compliments to Chinua Achebe). That is not all. He met a Yoruba lad, the late Lawrence Arokodare, in 1962. They bonded, looked out for each other, worked together, established a joint company in the 60s and, till today, that company is still thriving as a joint venture despite the death of one of the partners.

Hear what Rev Etteh has to say about his partnerships: “People who work and live with me have seen the spirit that operated in Lawrence and I, that we, when we started our journey together in life, gave no precedence to strife and discord, we were completely unaffected by tribalism or prejudice. This is one reason  I still take care of my late partner’s family; they still invite me for any events and special occasions that may arise. I care about Lawrence’s wife and his children. I don’t have a bias over anything or anyone that still belongs to him till this day. Both of us were known back in the 60s and 70s as people who accommodate all tribes, …” There was once a country. Yes, there was once a country, where a Mazi Mbonu Ojike, an Ibo, would be a Deputy Mayor of Lagos, where a Umaru Altine, a Fulani, would be a Mayor of Enugu, where an Eyo Ita, an Ibibio, would be Leader of Government in the East, where Professor Kenneth Dike, an Ibo, and Professor Tekena Tamuno, an Ijaw, would be Vice-Chancellors of the University of Ibadan. In 1962, the political crisis erupted in the old Western Region when the state of emergency was declared in the region, Chief (Dr.) Majekodunmi was appointed the Administrator and a young army Captain, Murtala Mohammed, was appointed his ADC. I was in Ibadan then and saw both of them worship in Christian churches. In 1966, when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was released from prison in Calabar and flown to Lagos, it was a young Major Murtala Mohammed who volunteered to drive him to Ikenne.

In 1975, when the then Brigadier-General Murtala Mohammed took over the reins of government, his ADC was Lt. Akintunde Akinterinwa. Both of them died together in 1976. Yes, there was once a country. There was once a country when, in 1957, one Felix Okonkwo was appointed a member of the Northern House of Chiefs. According to Senator Ben Murray Bruce: “So integrated was Okonkwo into Kano society that he was known….as Okonkwo Kano” (Thisday, November 30, 2015). What a country we once had. The two immediate questions which I need to address are: What changed? And what is the way forward? For clarity, let me register this fact. T

he volume of cross-country movements or migrations is greater today than when Revd Etteh left Upenekang in what is now Akwa Ibom State. There are more cross-cultural marriages now than then. That institution of immense potentiality at birth, the National Youth Service Corps, should take credit for these cross-cultural developments. But, and this is the crucial question: Are we more integrated, more united, today than in the 50s, 60s and 70s? The answer is a categorical no. We must resist the temptation to manufacture evidence. The evidence is all around us. We have fought a civil war, there are continuing threats of secession, there are loud cries of marginalization coming from all over the country. Or as the 2014 National Conference put it “since independence, millions of Nigerians of different tribes and faiths have lost their lives, and that children have been orphaned, women have been widowed, men, women, boys and girls have been maimed, hopes have been dashed, dreams have been shattered and properties have been destroyed, on account of conflicts brought about by the absence of genuine national integration and in total disregard of the tenets of our faith to truly love our neighbours as ourselves”. New words have crept into our political lexicon such as power rotation, our turn, quota, catchment area, federal character, etc. From the beginning of political activism in Nigeria, until 1999, roughly for a period of about 150 years, there were several federal elections involving the founding fathers, namely Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Shehu Shagari and not once was an election fought on the basis of “its our turn” or “power rotation” or any such abracadabra lexicon.

Zoning syndrome Yet, in 1999, the military government at that time decided to award the Presidency to the South-West on a rotation basis thereby introducing a new pernicious term into Nigerian politics. Can we get back the Lawrence and Etteh Nigeria from the post 1999 malaise? Of course, politicians will be politicians and will use anything to sell themselves. But there is hope out there if only we look out for it. Something has escaped the notice of everyone. Oh yes, everyone can recite the fact that General Buhari ran for office in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. The implication of this has escaped all but a few. My interpretation is that by running against Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Jonathan, General Buhari explicitly rejected the rotation and zoning syndrome in Nigerian politics. My interpretation is further buttressed by the fact that in every political party, their primaries had candidates from different zones. Dr. Alex Ekwueme contested against Obasanjo in the PDP, Atiku contested against Jonathan in the PDP, while Okorocha contested against Buhari in the APC primaries. So, there is still a silver lining out there. More evidence that all is not lost. Mrs Grace Brent, a lady from Osun State, was elected a senator from Adamawa State.

Pastor Ben Akabueze from the South-East was, for 16 years, the Commissioner for Economic Development and Budget in Lagos. But we must resist the temptation to misinterpret data. In the last election, in Lagos, Chief Oghene Eghoh, Mrs Rita Orji and Mr. Tony Nwoolu were elected into the House of Representatives to represent their constituencies. This has been touted as evidence of new nationalism. It is nothing of the sort. Their constituents were primarily from their ethnic stock. Of what benefit is that. Even the Pharisees do the same. It is when a different ethnic group picks you as its representative that a new nationalism is born. Yes, there was once a country. But I have not addressed the issue of how did we get from the Nigeria of Lawrence and Etteh to where we are now, although you might have guessed. Politics dragged us there. Drawing from Etteh’s memoirs, you can tell when the rain started falling on our heads. He remembered when in the 1960s, his friend, Lawrence, got the company where he worked, Ove Arup & Partners (OAP), to invite Etteh to Ibadan to take a job only for some people to castigate Lawrence for not recommending a Yoruba man for the job. The date of the incident is instructive. 1963/64 was right in the midst of the political crisis created in the Western Region after the declaration of the state of emergency in the West by the Federal Government.

The Yoruba of the West were feeling very much under siege. Of course Nigerian history then became an apt illustration of the Swahili proverb which says, “You don’t need to teach anyone how to fall into a ditch. Just take the first off the edge and other steps will follow”. Nigeria descended into insurrection in the West, two coup d’états, and a civil war. From then on, Nigerian politics became deeply rooted in ethnic-driven sentiments. If truth be told, appointments at the federal level became a battleground between the East and the West as merit was thrown overboard. People now got the impression that what you got at the Federal level depended on the ethnic colouration of the Minister and Permanent Secretary. In other words, the descent of politics into ethnic quagmire was accompanied by a bureaucratic descent into ethnic quagmire and a descent in all spheres of human endeavor in Nigeria into ethnic quagmire.

What is the way forward? Firstly, Nigeria is a complex country to manage. It is not a simple state. It is a state of nationalities, many nationalities. Some have suggested that we have about 360 nationalities. Others have suggested 450 nationalities——typical Nigerian hyperbole. Every village is now being called a nationality. Managing such a complex enterprise is going to call for compromises and an understanding that mistakes will be made and that when mistakes are made, they should be addressed. And it is important to begin from a historical perspective. That Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state is a fact that cannot be denied. The following are the most populous and politically influential – Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo (Ibo) 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5%, Tiv 2.5% (Nigeria Fact Sheet, United States Embassy). It is counterproductive for anyone to deny his or her ethnic identity. But admitting one’s ethnic identity is one thing, while asserting that identity to the detriment of other ethnic identities is the problem. In other words, assertion of an ethnic identity is ethnicity and is acceptable. But a behaviour based on an assertion of one’s identity as if that is the only identity in a multi-ethnic state is ethnicism and unacceptable.  

But I must emphasize from the beginning that the fact that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state is not unique to Nigeria or unique to Africa. It is not a negative phenomenon. Take a look at Europe:

The interesting thing about this is that Europe which we all think of as a white undifferentiated continent, turns out to be a variegated continent with each country being a rainbow of nationalities.

The next issue to confront is what is often characterized as the artificial creation of Nigeria. This is in reference to the 1915 amalgamation of Nigeria by Lord Lugard. Underlying this negative perception of the amalgamation is the mistaken belief that before the colonial intrusion, groups in Nigeria lived in splendid isolation. It is mistaken because to use Lagos as an example, long before the British colonization, you had the Nupe settling in Oshodi, the Epe settlling in Epetedo and the Ijesas settling in Ijesatedo.

As regards the issue of the artificiality of the Nigerian nation, the 2014 National Conference, in a Report adopted without dissent paid tribute to the efforts of the colonial authorities in clubbing together the disparate nationalities into what is now called Nigeria when the Conference said that it was “persuaded that when the administrations of the Northern and the Southern Protectorates of Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, the framework of a potentially great nation was laid”, and called on all Nigerians “to ensure that the amalgamation achieves its full intendment of building a fully integrated nation”. This was a Report adopted by 460 representatives of the Nigerian people.

Again, the artificiality of Nigerian boundaries is not a Nigerian phenomenon. Apart from Islands such as New Zealand, Australia whose boundaries are natural, all boundaries in the world are artificial, being determined by wars, conquest and treaties. European boundaries have been determined by a series of conferences namely; the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, Congress of Vienna, 1815, Versailles Peace Conference, 1915, and the post-Second World War, not to mention the civil wars following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The frontiers of the United States were formed as a result of wars between the British and the French authorities over the Canadian/United States border, and wars between the United States and Mexico to define the southern frontier.

The net effect of my submission is this: while admitting that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state and that its boundaries are artificial, that should not pose existential threats to Nigeria. I am not saying that they could not because obviously, they can and have posed existential threats in Nigeria and in other places in the past. But it is like fire. It can cook, and it can burn.

This then leads me to ask a pertinent question: Should Nigeria have the free for all political system which we operate? During the First Republic, we had three major political parties: the NPC from the North, the NCNC from both the East and the West even though in public perception, it was regarded as an Eastern party and the Action Group was from the West. All the other parties were just ancillary parties. During the second Republic, the pattern was repeated. The NPN was basically a Northern party, the NPP was basically an Eastern party, and the UPN was basically a Western party. All the other parties were again ancillary parties.

The putative Third Republic was the only exception. The military regime decreed a two-party system. There was no Northern party, no Eastern party and no Western party. All of us had to find room in one party or the other rather than to keep setting up ethnic parties.

Each African state shaped its own response to multi-ethnic politics. But I have attempted some sort of classification into four groups. The first group is made up of those states who adopted a One-party system as a solution. Examples are:

  • Angola (MPLA) 1975–1991
  • Benin (People’s Revolutionary Party of Benin) 1975–1990
  • Republic of Upper Volta Upper Volta (African Democratic Rally) 1960– 1966
  • Burundi (Union for National Progress) 1966–1992
  • Cameroon (Cameroon National Union) 1966–1985, (Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement) 1985–1990
  • Cape Verde (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) 1975–1981, (African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde) 1981–1990
  • Central African Republic (Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa) 1962–1980, (Central African Democratic Union) 1980-1981, (Central African Democratic Rally) 1987–1991
  • Chad (Chadian Progressive Party) 1962–1973, (National Movement for the Cultural and Social Revolution) 1973–1975, (National Union for Independence and Revolution) 1984–1990
  • Comoros (Comorian Union for Progress) 1982–1990
  • Congo-Brazzaville (Congolese Party of Labour) 1969–1990
  • Zaire (Popular Movement of the Revolution) 1970–1990
  • Djibouti (People’s Rally for Progress) 1977–1992
  • Equatorial Guinea (Worker’s National United Party) 1970–1979, (Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea) 1987–1991
  • Ethiopia (Workers’ Party of Ethiopia) 1984–1991
  • Gabon (Gabonese Democratic Party) 1968–1990
  • Ghana (Convention People’s Party) 1964–1966
  • Guinea (Democratic Party of Guinea – African Democratic Rally) 1958–1984
  • Guinea-Bissau (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) 1974–1991
  • Ivory Coast (Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire – African Democratic Rally) 1960–1990
  • Kenya (Kenya African National Union) 1982–1991
  • Liberia (True Whig Party) 1878–1980
  • Madagascar (National Front for the Defense of the Revolution) 1976–1989
  • Malawi (Malawi Congress Party) 1964–1993
  • Mali (Sudanese Union – African Democratic Rally) 1960–1968, (Democratic Union of the Malian People) 1976–1991
  • Mauritania (Mauritanian People’s Party) 1961–1978
  • Mozambique (FRELIMO) 1975–1990
  • Niger (Nigerien Progressive Party – African Democratic Rally) 1960–1974, (National Movement for the Development of Society) 1989–1991
  • Rwanda (Parmehutu) 1965–1973, (National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development) 1975-1991
  • São Tomé and Príncipe (Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe/Social Democratic Party) 1975–1990
  • Senegal (Socialist Party of Senegal) 1966–1974
  • Seychelles (Seychelles People’s Progressive Front) 1977–1991
  • Sierra Leone (All People’s Congress) 1978–1991
  • Somalia (Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party) 1976–1991
  • Sudan (Sudanese Socialist Union) 1971–1985, (National Congress Party) 1989–2005
  • Tanzania (Chama Cha Mapinduzi) 1977–1992
  • Tanganyika (Tanganyika African National Union) 1961–1977
  • Zanzibar (Afro-Shirazi Party) 1964–1977
  • Togo (Party of Togolese Unity) 1962–1963, (Rally of the Togolese People) 1969–1991
  • Uganda (Uganda People’s Congress) 1969–1971
  • Zambia (United National Independence Party) 1972–1990
  • Some Middle Eastern and North African states;
  • Algeria (National Liberation Front) 1962–1989
  • Egypt (National Union) 1956–1958 and 1961–1962, (Arab Socialist Union) 1962–1976
  • Libya (Arab Socialist Union) 1971–1977
  • North Yemen (General People’s Congress) 1982–1988
  • South Yemen (Yemeni Socialist Party) 1978–1990
  • Tunisia (Neo Destour) 1963–1964, (Socialist Destourian Party) 1964–1981
  • United Arab Republic (National Union) 1958–1961.

Theoretically, a one-party system did not recognize the rainbow variety of the state. But in actual fact, in the allocation of offices, both elective and appointive, it practiced affirmative action.

But by the 1990s, Africa enjoyed its democratic spring when hundreds of new political parties sprung up especially in those one-party states.

The second group can be classified into those states that run a fully functional open space system with an open multi-party system. Nigeria between 1954 and 1966, 1979-1984 will be an example of this. Between 1954 and 1966, there were three major parties in Nigeria, namely the Northern Peoples’ Congress,(representing the North), the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (with a national spread, but with the catchment area being in Eastern Nigeria) and the Action Group (representing the West). But there were also several mini parties. Between 1979 and 1984, there were the: –

  • Greater Nigerian People’s Party (GNPP)
  • National Party of Nigeria (NPN)
  • Nigeria Advance Party (NAP)
  • Nigerian People’s Party (NPP)
  • People’s Redemption Party (PRP)
  • Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN)
  • Movement of the People Party (MPP),

Of which the GNPP, NPN, NPP and UPN were the major parties, while the others were marginal

The third group will be those who run an open space system with a restricted multiparty system. States which typified this system are states which originally ran a one party-system but on opening up the system, used their original position to maintain a dominance of a contrived system. Examples are the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the Parti Démocratique Gabonais or the Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais)


Prof. A. Bolaji Akinyemi, CFR, delivered this lecture at the Maiden Edition of Engr. (Rev) Et Ikpong Ikpong Etteh (OFR) Annual Distinguished Lecture held, at the Oriental Hotel, Lekki, Lagos, on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.


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