Divided we fall: Nigerian mosaic

By Phillip Oak

There is a land whose heart is the fork of mighty rivers. Virile valleys traverse fruitful lands, nested by people bright, blessed and beautiful. Firm in the fecund embrace of oceans of sand and sea she is a triumph of versatility, plurality and power. From the elegeant shrub lands of the sahel to the muscular mangroves of its deltas, its a land teeming with wonder, magic and forment. Sounds familiar? It should be.
That land, that country is Nigeria, the great gnarled giant of Africa. Gnarled because the Nigerian experiment has fallen. A profoundly promising project in post colonial nation building is now in tatters, reduced to a colossal powder keg on the brink of implosion.

How did she get here? How did a virtual cornucopia of plenty become this abject? When the British, in the late 1800s, finally got down to the business of colonizing the lands that would eventually be called Nigeria she was already settled by a multitude of aboriginal tribes and cultures with origins lost in the mist of time.

There is a suffiety of scientific evidence of their presence here since antiquity. Iron age artifacts in locations like Nssuka and in the Taruga basin predate those of Egypt by centuries. Over millennia these anthropological clusters flourished through an age ruled by crazy gods, demons and spirits, developing with amazing distinctness into discrete tongues and tribes.

Nigeria has a whooping 250 ethnic groups with distinct linguistic forms, not taking into account dialetical differences. These tribal clusters would coalese in time and in places and flourish into thriving subsaharan communities, develop complex kingdoms and empires and create systems of community and cohesiveness that were as intimate as they would become innate.

The yoruba kingdom flourished in the 1700s extending at its peak to as far as modern day Togo. The Benin empire survived in its military and cultural hegemony for about 400 years and the Kanem-Bornu empire was a mighty transsaharan outpost of islamic theocracy, residual now as the Borno Emirate in modern day Borno state.

The transformational Sokoto Caliphate extended its cultured and religious dominance from the Sahel almost to the Atlantic. Into this unallied confederation of nations sauntered the British in the mid to late 1800 first through its annexation of Lagos and then of the Southern Nigerian Protectorate via the pacification activities in the lower Niger of its commercial arrowhead, The Royal Niger Company.

The northern reaches of the country was to follow and fall solidifying the entire region under one administrative authority. Nigeria, drawing on her enormous human and material resources was to quickly evolve as a regional power and by independence in 1960 was the dominant country in the West African subregion.

With independence the various tribes, now contituted into 3 loosely allied administrative regions, were to begin the ardous task of forging a working nation. And they started on a promising if shaky footing. Sadly all too soon the tensions of tribalism and regionalism would stoke the embers of war.

The country, at the mercy of its new power hungry political class, soon descended into internicine war. 1970 and the conclusion of the Biafran war brought the chance of a reset and a new start especially powered by the discovery of Nigeria’s huge crude oil reserves.

But the evolving culture of public office mismangement, prevalent all over Africa, was gaining force in the Nigerian polity. Over the ensuing decades corruption and state irresponsibility was to tear at the very fabric of the country and reduce the Nigerian dream to ashes. These have been dealt with both by other articles in this column and by other columnists.

The mandate here for Stethoscope is to examine the mechanism or mechanisms of this dissolution of hope. At independence Nigeria was correctly a confederation of federating regions, with an umpire Federal Government. But with the incursion of the military into civil governance, firstly with the two coups of 1966, the outcome was more consolidation of power at the center with a definite unitary bent.

Continuing from that point the federal government was to hold titular power over a pseudofederation and become the nexus of political power and privilege. The Nigerian constitution in its last 1999 iteration was to consolidate that position and perpetuate the system of regional dependence for sustenance on the centre.

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When the oil boom occurred in the seventies with this arrangement in place, it devolved on the centre the sole authority and means to disburse the surplus in oil revenues.

That began the culture of federal subsidies to states which quickly eroded regional focus on age-old economic expertise: cocoa farming in the West, mining and production industry in the East, vegetables cash crop farming and animal husbandry in the North and sundry other profitable ventures from the diverse and versitile plurality of the country.

Slowly these time honored strenghts withered down to mere subsistence level activities, the province of toiling, resourcestrapped peasant farmers, artisans and laborers, instead of the national and global production engines that they should have evolved into.

Today the country is worse of for it, a beggar and pariah nation at the lagging hind-guard of the nations’ race. Countries like Malasia who once sought developmental assistance from Nigeria are now light years ahead, true giants of economic and industrial growth and prosperity.

The Nigerian people are as industrious as they are happy, hospitable and beautiful. But they are also made up of several ethnically distinct groups each with time-deep roots into the meaning of self and the cosmos. And this is not a bad thing.

The writer grew up in Benin city, that centred stronghold of the old Benin Kingdom, land of great obas and ancient traditions. Post independence Benin city was serially capital city of the Midwestern region, Bendel state and now of Edo state.

Then and now from its landlocked location roadways and cultural connectivity radiated out in all directions to all the reaches of the country. Benin-City in the seventies in the wake of the civil war was a thriving metropolis, a multi tribal mecca of interdependent neighbors.

My childhood neighborhood at SecondEast Circular road and Esigie street, representative of most neighborhoods in Benin, was a microcosm of the larger Nigeria with close quartered multi tribal neighbours, cooexisting more like relatives cross exchanging values and cultural mores with no recognition of tribe or religion. From such formidable moral melting pots a child recieved the tenets of the Nigerian aptitude for loyalty and charity, codependency, amity and fortitude.

Unfortunately, so far, the puerile political class has been unable or unwilling to harness this diversity for its true potential but rather, as is true all over Africa, has exploited it to destructive ends for its own selfish gains and aggrandizement without any real sense of patriotism or duty. The result today is a failed state peppered by economic woes and subhuman levels of social amenities and security.

Yet she remains potentially a tour de force, a country of great promise, its people ready and able to wake up, dust off and rise again. What is needed ultimately is a restructuring of the federal project to allow for enough independence of regions, and a watering down of the powers of the centre-seat, to give kinetics to regional development and growth.

The constitution and the federal structure must therefore be revamped towards more not less regional autonomy. And only in so doing can the dream be revived: that of a Nigeria in which united, we rise.

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