In this interview with ABDULAZIZ ABDULAZIZ, author and civil society activist, Chido Onumah, offers diagnosis of the challenges affecting Nigeria’s nationhood and why the country needs to engage in a discourse aimed at restructuring its political structure.
Your book, We Are All Biafrans, tackles critical questions of nationhood. This is an issue that many would tell you is settled. Why do you insist on interrogating this basis of our union?
You raise a very interesting point. The explanation for our current dilemma can be found in the failure of our rulers since independence to build a nation out of what was handed to us by the colonialists. Some people will tell you that the question of nationhood is settled. But there are others who will also disagree with you.
Nationhood is a collective vision. There are many who, for example, feel that the civil that cost the country so much in terms of lives and resources hasn’t ended; that the idea of “no victor, no vanquished” declared at the end of the war was a ruse. You can’t blame them. Then there are those who think they have a greater stake in the country than others, who feel they are the bastion of national unity. They are indifferent to the cries of injustice across the country.
It is this conflict, this contradiction, that I interrogate. There are millions of our compatriots who feel they have no stake in Nigeria; millions who feel they have been left out of the gains that independence ought to bring. We should be worried about this feeling of alienation that is breeding disquiet if we are interested in forging a nation.
Did your experience as a boy growing up in the shadow of Biafra in the then Eastern region shape your perspectives to some of these issues?
Not at all. I grew up in Lagos. But for as long as I can remember I have been interested in the “Nigerian question”. I have interrogated it and tried to answer the question as dispassionately as I can. Growing up, I was surrounded by people from different parts of the country. I tried to learn as many languages as I could. Amongst my friends were Muslim kids whose parents were from Kwara and Kano States. I had other friends from Rivers and Imo States. My best friend was from Delta State. We attended the same secondary school and later shared a flat after graduation. It was our humanity, our interest in football and other games that bound us together. We never saw ourselves as belonging to any other place than that shared civic space. I remember kids who defied their parents when they were told not to play with me and my siblings because we were from a different ethnic group.
To answer your question directly, my experiences growing up shaped my perspective as a humanist, one who is not interested in being compartmentalized in terms of ethnicity or religion. I see myself first as a human being before anything else. And I would do all I can to defend that. Having said that, I need to point out that I share vicariously in the Biafra experience. My father fought in the civil war on the side of Biafra and up until today, at 82, we still have discussions around the subject. I learnt a lot about the human tragedy of the war from my late mother who was a young wife in her early twenties and had to cater for two young children while her husband was at the battlefield. When I synthesize all of these experiences, the conclusion is that that internecine war was avoidable and that we need to do everything in our power not to allow such tragedy befall this nation again. We need a new vision of Nigeria different from what was handed down to us by our forebears. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we have learnt anything from the past.
Many of those afraid of discussions or actions around the structure of Nigeria do it for fear that such agitations may shatter the bridge linking us together. What is your take on such apprehensions?
I agree with you but it shouldn’t be so. There is so much confusion and insincerity when it comes to the issue of restructuring. There are so many positions and tendencies that some people will be genuinely confused. But the truth is that this country of ours is not working, except perhaps for a few people, the swindlers in the corridors of power, their accomplices in executive and legislative positions and political jobbers of ever hue. The question then should be, if the country is not working, what is to be done? The answer is no rocket science. Those who purportedly are afraid of discussions or actions around the structure of Nigeria should do serious introspection and ask themselves if the country isn’t working, shouldn’t we do something about it. Whether they like it or not, people are doing something about it. We can see it in the different violent crises across the country.
Then, of course, there are those on the other extreme of this debate who erroneously think that restructuring is a silver bullet, that it will solve all of our problems. And this is exemplified in the rise of ethnic nationalism across the country. So, to some extent you can understand the apprehension, even if it is not justifiable, of those who say they are opposed to restructuring. Restructuring for me is just the first step in the tortuous road to nationhood. We can only make progress as a people when we agree that we are one people, even if we have different histories, dedicated to a common vision and future.
The former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, put it aptly during his speech at the late Gen. Usman Katsina Memorial Conference in Kaduna two weeks ago when he noted: “I suggest we resolve today to support calls for the restructuring of the Nigerian federation in order to strengthen its unity and stabilize its democracy. I believe that restructuring will eventually happen whether we like or support it or not. The question is whether it will happen around a conference table…a nation is an organism; it grows, it evolves, it changes, it adapts. And like other organisms if it does not adapt, it dies.
The nation seems to be moving in circles, hopes rising and getting dashed at critical cornerstones: the Murtala regime, the June 12, 1993 election, the1999 transition and the 2015 election that saw for the first time the defeat of a sitting civilian government through the ballot. Why does the country lose it at points that it seems we are there?
Could it be that we don’t really have a nation? That is the question we need to find answers to because we can’t afford this up and down as a nation. It doesn’t create room for development. There is a sense in which our lack of collective agreement of what Nigeria means to us is responsible for our woes. At independence the country held out great hope and potentials. But it has remained just that, hope and potential. We have not been able to transform this into a lived reality for millions of our country men and women. We distrust one another; we second-guess each other in ways that are mutually destructive. We have had a civil war, several bloody military coups, many religious and ethnic crises and lately low-intensity wars across the country.
What is responsible for all these? I think the answer can be found in the views of Prof Yakubu Aboki Ochefu, Vice-Chancellor of Kwararafa University, in the introduction to my 2013 book, Nigeria is Negotiable: “As a country on its ‘third missionary’ journey to a truly democratic nation, the fundamental questions of nation building that began over 100 years ago have not been fully and or properly answered.”
What this means is that rather than pulling together the centrifugal forces seem to have taken charge. There is hardly any issue the peoples of Nigeria can agree on. What is music to the ears of one group is more often than not earsplitting noise to other groups. I think that is the challenge of this generation: how to build a nation out of the disparate groups that make up Nigeria. Our forebears didn’t succeed in this regard; we can’t afford to fail for the sake of our children.
Some are calling for dusting off and adoption of the report of the 2014 National Conference, do you think that is sufficient to answer the burning questions?
That could be a good starting point. As a people we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss. The danger actually is in not discussing. The 2014 nation can provide the basis for further discussion about the structure of the country moving forward. But that argument shouldn’t detain us. If it is the consensus that we explore other process, I am comfortable with that. The bottom line for me is that at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of Nigerians agree to the process and the outcome of that process.
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