Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President, made another statement in his recent open letter addressed to Chief Edwin Clark (PANDEF) on the ownership of the Niger Delta oil. This was a statement that hit at the heart of Nigeria’s identity: a multi-national state. Obasanjo stated that Chief Clark must “change from being a tribesman” to become a stateman. He also said that tribesmen would always sacrifice their state for their tribe until the state emerged.
These are powerful statements but ignore the fact Nigeria is a multi-national state. It is defined as a sovereign entity that includes not one, but many countries. These comments overlook the fact that “tribal allegiances” can’t and won’t ever be suppressed until Nigeria becomes a nation and an inclusive nation. Ethnic nationalism is not a result of Nigeria’s failure as a country, but as a state.
Let’s first address some points before we get to the core of the matter. Obasanjo uses the term “tribe” first. Obasanjo called Chief Clark a “tribesman”, a derogative term that means a tribalist. But which tribe? Obasanjo’s Owu refers to a Yoruba tribe. However, the Yoruba are a nation and not a tribe. The same applies to the Ijaw and Igbo, Fulani, Tiv, and other nations that make up Nigeria. The English, Welsh, Welsh, and Northern-Irish were never called tribes. They are instead described as four nations of the United Kingdom with each represented on their flags.
This is a serious point. This is important because centralists (as opposed to federalists) call Nigeria’s centuries old nations “tribes” in order to denigrate or diminish their pivotality within a multinational state, and to treat Nigeria without nationhood as a “nation”. To intimidate and degrade those fighting for genuine federalism and ethnic justice, centralists also use the insulting term “tribalists” and “tribesmen”.
It’s amazing. What makes Clark a “tribesman”, and Obasanjo an “statesman?” Obasanjo stated that Clark was “characteristically recognized and noted for Urhobo, or Ijaw.” Is Chief Clark calling for Nigeria’s disintegration or the secession of the Niger Delta? It is far from the truth. He advocates justice and fairness instead for a region, his area, that is utterly poor despite producing oil that accounts to over 70% of Nigeria’s total revenues, even though that is effectively “bankrolling” Nigeria. Simply put, Chief Clark is telling Nigeria to not kill the goose that lays golden eggs. What is tribalism?
The truth is that Nigeria has a lot of powerful people who dominate the weaker ones. And the state doesn’t guarantee equal material treatment for all ethnic groups. Leaders in minority regions such as the Niger Delta or the Middle Belt must speak up for their communities. It is perverse to smear ethnic justice advocates with the negative label of tribesmen.
Former President Obasanjo warned Nigerians about a Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda in 2019. In fact, Fulani militia launched genocidal strikes in the Middle Belt countries. Did those Middle-Belt leaders scream about the “ethnic cleansing” of their tribesmen? Or, are there leaders in the South-East that scream about the Igbo being marginalized and not having a fair chance to be national leadership tribalists
Ironically, the same Obasanjo stated in June 2021 that he believed in only one Nigeria. However, he did not believe in any other Nigeria. He said that he believed only in one Nigeria, “where every Nigerian is proud to have a stake in the country”. This statement is striking, but it goes against what he stated about tribesmen fighting for justice and equity for those from weaker communities.
This brings us to Obasanjo’s second conceptual error in his open letter. His conflations of “state” and “nation.” Obasanjo stated that tribes should be destroyed “for the state” to emerge. But Nigeria is a nation, though it is severely dysfunctional. Nigeria, however, is not a nation. Nigeria cannot claim to be a nation by any stretch of the imagination. A functioning state can only emerge when a nation emerges first. The seminal report on state fragility stated that “State building requires nation building, and nation building requires actions from the state.”
In a way, Obasanjo was saying that the “tribe” must be suppressed in order for the state to emerge. He was also indirectly saying that only proper nationhood can lead to statehood. After all, how could tribes be suppressed if there is a nation where everyone feels a sense belonging? But Nigeria is not forming nationhood. The state leaders, the government, do nothing to make Nigeria a nation. The best way to build nationhood is through inclusive politics and inclusive governance.
Professor Chris Brown of London School of Economics claims that politics in multi-national states is a form of group bargaining, compromise, and, at worst, degenerate to a struggle for dominance. In Nigeria, politics is a struggle to domination with entrenched oppositional identities. Chinua Achebe stated in “There was a country” that Nigeria’s structure was so built that there was a power struggle between the ethnic groups.
Let’s face the facts, Nigeria is still troubled by its leaders’ tendency to overlook the natural creation of Nigeria. Inability to recognize Nigeria’s tortured past and birth defects has resulted in a reluctance to invest in nation-building. Nigeria is a manufactured construct. It was a composite of several empires and kingdoms from ancient times, proud nations that have existed for many centuries.
Although the 1914 amalgamation was a fact, most people want Nigeria to remain one. However, it is important to make Nigeria an inclusive, fair, and just country. If ethnic allegiances are not to be suppressed, they must be subsumed in a state that has a common purpose. Ethnic nationalism cannot be completely discarded.
Professor Paul Collier from Oxford University pointed out that, 300 years after Britain was formed, the British identity remains weaker than its core identities of English and Welsh, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern-Irish. According to one poll, 56% Scots said they were more Scottish than British, 45% of Northern Irish more Irish than British, 36% more Welsh than British, and 27% more English than British.
Sir John Major, a former UK prime minister, wrote in the Financial Times last summer: “Scotland has been defined and is proud.” “She is fully capable of self-government, and has the right to seek independence,” a former UK prime minister stated. Did he undermine the UK’s corporate existence? No. His key point is: “If the Union wants to be kept together it must be as an authentic partnership.”
This must also be true for Nigeria, a multi-national state that includes proud and definable nations. Obasanjo would like Nigeria to be a country that is inclusive, and a true partner among its constituents. Only nationhood can foster a sense common purpose, unity, and progress.
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s current constitution, politico–governance structure and nonchalance of its leaders are not allowing for an inclusive and cohesive country and functioning state to emerge. Nigeria needs visionary leaders, nation-builders and visionaries!