Nigerians across diverse backgrounds appear to be united around the new slogan of “restructuring”. This term is not new to the political lexicon of Nigeria but it is now increasingly being used as a once-and-for-all solution to our numerous problems as a nation. Restructuring, like other similar aspirations before it, appears to be the new utopia of the Nigerian people. The problem with this renewed and heightened calls for a tinkering with Nigeria’s current federal configuration is the lack of unanimity among its proponents about the proper definition of the concept of “restructuring”.
The concept of restructuring as currently being canvassed raises more questions than solutions to Nigeria’s deep-rooted socio-economic misfortunes through the loud voices of lamentation over the various stages of the country’s journey to nationhood, beginning with the British colonisation.
Some historians have blamed the current dysfunction of our nation state on the colonial experiment of amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates of all the erstwhile British territories around the River Niger area, between Dahomey from the west, stretching across the Benue river to the east. And, just before the Cameroon mountains and from the lower belt of the Sahara desert in the north, through the confluence valley through the Niger Delta to the shores of the Atlantic ocean – in the process bringing together hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, city states and ancient African kingdoms into a single geographic space known today as Nigeria.
It is generally believed that a process, in which the people concerned had no input from being consulted on the nature and form of the emergent modern state of Nigeria, within whose boundaries they were bound to live, has continued to create socio-political tension that is straining the very foundation of the basis of national unity and purposeful cohesion. Therefore, it is the believe of many that there is an urgent need to renegotiate the terms and conditions for oneness of the Nigerian people, and not in Berlin as done by the earlier European coloniser, but this time by Nigerians drawn from all sections of the country, with the aim of coming up with a socio-political structure of state more acceptable to all, in order to ensure a more equitable and just distribution of resources. However, the clamour for restructuring along ethnic lines is not only retrogressive but a recipe for an infinite smothering of the Nigerian state out of existence.
No nation on earth has a perfect structure of state as every case is a work in progress. Nigeria’s current structure is not an exception.
British social scientists and anthropologists, who carried out extensive explorations of the British sphere of influence around the Niger area, successfully isolated and identified similar norms, cultures, traditions and languages of otherwise distinct peoples, leading the current ethnic groupings by which Nigerians are identified. Before this backward integration, there was no ethnic group known as Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa-Fulani.
However, Nigeria’s problem is not so much that of structure but the operation of the structure by various state actors across all the tiers and arms of government. Nigerians yearn for “true federalism” in the mould of the First Republic’s semi-autonomous federating units. The romantisisation of the First Republic tends to obscure the fact the 1963 constitution didn’t quite work well because it created a wedge between national citizenship and regional indigeneity. The inability to resolve the conflict of citizenship and indigeniety by the leaders then led to the eventual collapse of that structure. So long as Nigerians allow their diversity to constitute a fault line, no structure will work positively for the nation.
No nation was divinely decreed into existence. Nation states evolve as a result of the resolve of the constituent peoples to make it so. In the process of evolving into nation states, colonialism played and continues to play a critical role through trade, diplomacy and, in some cases, conquest by warfare. These interactions have their pains as well as gains. The emphasis on the pains of colonialism by pan-African historians has obscured its enormous gains. Great Britain, Nigeria’s colonial master was first conquered by the Normans and was subsequently colonised by the Romans. The name, Britain, is believed to be the anglicised form of the Roman ‘Britannia’. The lessons not learnt from our colonial experience is the strength in unity of the British people, which made a small Island nation of about 18 million people to colonise a country of 50 million people at the time.
The systematic conquest of the various kingdoms and city states that make up Nigeria by the British was possible because the native peoples did not present a united front against external aggression. The British engaged, on individual basis, with each native kingdom and city state, in diplomacy, trade and warfare to ease the process of colonisation for its own benefit, otherwise no nation on earth could have conquered a united Nigeria in its current form. However, one unintended benefit of colonialism was a coalescence of the various native peoples into larger ethnic groupings by the way of backward integration of sub-ethnic groups into larger tribes that led to a new identity for the natives, which roughly corresponded to the administrative federating units that were the regions of the First Republic.
British social scientists and anthropologists, who carried out extensive explorations of the British sphere of influence around the Niger area, successfully isolated and identified similar norms, cultures, traditions and languages of otherwise distinct peoples, leading the current ethnic groupings by which Nigerians are identified. Before this backward integration, there was no ethnic group known as Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa-Fulani. In the western region, it was the Oyo, Ijebu, Egba, Owu, Ijesha, Ife, etc. In the eastern region, it was the Aro, Bende, Onitsha Ado, Wawa, Ala Owerri etc. Hausa was never a tribe but a language widely spoken by a commonwealth of ethnic groups that shared commonalities in geography, culture and tradition. The Hausa language was thus enriched greatly by the original vocabularies of the various adoptive ethnic groups that congregated under the cultural commonwealth of northern Nigeria. This backward integration was so successful that the various warring ethnic groups that now identify as Yoruba of the South-West region of Nigeria fostered a common socio-political identity with which they negotiated a fair share of national resources.
The rigidity with which Nigerians currently hold on to their ethnic identities, which are largely colonial creations that were further deepened by political expediency by our founding fathers and has led to the clamour for restructuring along ethnic lines, is a sad narrative that should have no place in a modern nation.
Interestingly, the man who is often credited by historians with working hard on the political unity of the Yoruba in the modern era, Obafemi Awolowo, was an Ijebu; an ethnic group that does share with the rest of the Yoruba, the Oduduwa ancestry. He was greatly aided by no less a person than Sir Adeyemo Alakija, a Saro (descendants of returnee ex-slaves from Brazil). The Yoruba identity was further enhanced by the traditional sanction of the Ooni of Ife, who some historians admit is not a bloodline descendant of Oduduwa, the patriarch of the seven original ruling dynasties of Yoruba land, as the supreme leader of the Yoruba tribe. Similarly, the Igbo tribe was united under the political leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe, whose origin is traced to Onitsha Ado, a distinct group among the larger Igbo ethnic groupings that traces its roots to the ancient Kingdom of Benin.
The political leader of the North was Ahmadu Bello, a descendant of migrant Fulanis from Futa Djalon. His administrative genius was deployed to build a very cohesive Northern Region by assimilating and integrating the various diverse ethnic groups in the North into an Arewa identity. The high point of this effort was when Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a son of the servant of the Madaki of Bauchi, whose origin was traced to the Jarawa, a small ethnic group in the then Bauchi province, became prime minister of Nigeria on the strength of the majority seats won by the NPC in the federal parliament of the First Republic. The success of the backward integration of the Nigerian peoples and culture is a clear indicator that we were not really different as a people. We simply didn’t realise how intricately linked we were.
If the Oyo, Ife, Ijesha and Ijebu resolved to unite under the Yoruba identity; the Aro, Wawa and Bende came together under the leadership of a descendant of Benin Kingdom through Onitsha Ado; and the confederation of various ethnic groups in the North assumed a new, unified, Arewa identity, then they all can come together and adopt a Nigerian identity by way of forward integration. All it will take is a resolve to be Nigerians and not physical restructuring because we are who we decide to be. Therefore, the rigidity with which Nigerians currently hold on to their ethnic identities, which are largely colonial creations that were further deepened by political expediency by our founding fathers and has led to the clamour for restructuring along ethnic lines, is a sad narrative that should have no place in a modern nation. The diversity of Nigeria is simply the beautiful plumages of one big bird and should not be allowed to degenerate into deep fault lines that are largely based on superficial ethnic groupings. We need to let go of the rigidity with which we hold on to these superficial ethnic identities.
Unfortunately, the desired forward integration of the current ethnic groupings into a Nigerian identity has been hampered by the failure of African social scientists and anthropologists to further the study in identifying the similarities among Nigerian peoples and sub-cultures. The unfortunate practice of some leading intellectuals in Nigeria, to reduce public discourse to promoting the ethnic supremacy of one group over another has drastically rolled back the existing backward integration that was achieved over five decades ago, making restructuring along ethnic lines a recipe for disintegration.