The threat of disintegration is an existential question that hangs around the necks of several states in Africa like the Sword of Damocles. It has been that way since the colonial partition of African territory at the Berlin Conference of 1885, where peoples of different and sometimes conflicting ethnic groups across varied communities in Africa were forcibly lumped together to create nominal independent states at the behest and benefit of the imperialist conquerors from the West so many years ago. Modern African states owe their names and origins to the interests of their various colonial masters. In Nigeria, for example, the Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, woke up one day and were told they were to be known as Nigerians, when Briton’s Lord Lugard made a decision to ‘amalgamate’ the Southern and Northern parts (Protectorates) of the occupied territory back in 1914. The new creation became the Nigerian state, but not a nation. The area consisted of various ethnic nationalities at the time. We have been trying to create one single nationality (without success) out of the many ever since. Numerous constitutional conferences have taken place since 1914 to address this lacunae, all to no avail. Some now believe Nigeria should simply go back to the pre-1914 geographical existence or call a Sovereign National Conference to unravel the knotty question. Others think the problem of nationhood is a symptom of corrupt, egotistical and vacuous leadership which, overtime, can and will be corrected through politics.
Modern states have historically emerged from already defined and properly demarcated nations. A good example is the current Palestinians in the Middle East. Palestinians fulfil all the characteristics of a nation, and are indeed recognised as such across the globe. What they lack and are fighting for is their own state. Once the characteristics of nationhood have been established, then, the people concerned make a declaration of statehood (sometimes by force), which is then accepted and recognised across international boundaries as a fait accompli. Modern African states, on the other hand, came to being before a proper sense of belonging to a nation had been forged amongst its inhabitants. The states were decreed by colonial fiat, then, the people affected started trying to find out what common heritage (culture, language, history etc) bound the citizens. Without these, how can there be a true sense of belonging to a nation? In Nigeria, the major ethnic nationalities have never ceased to see themselves as anything other than in the cloak of their various ethnic affiliations first, Nigerian second.
The other (Pan-Africanist) argument would be that, but for the cruel Western intervention through colonialism, the African Nation already existed, at least, concretely, across the swathe of sub-Saharan down to Southern Cape in South Africa. All that was needed was a declaration of statehood; a state called Africa, just like the modern Chinese state. The colonial partition of the continent denied its inhabitants from taking this giant leap. Consequently, dismantling of the modern (colonial) states across the continent provides the best solution to the intractable problem of nationhood.
The above conundrum has manifested itself in Nigeria in the politics of ethnic “marginalisation” and a perpetual call for “restructuring”. For the political elite, the Nigerian state remains a dead elephant upon whose carcass everybody feeds. “Our turn to eat” rings a familiar tone to this. For example, there are those in the northern part of Nigeria who, (rightly or wrongly), see the dominance of northern personnel in the upper reaches of government under President Muhammadu Buhari as no less than their just desert; it’s their turn to eat, after all. On the other hand, the Yoruba in the South-West, and the Igbo in the South-East are being encouraged, through winks, nods, and dog-whistling rhetoric on the campaign trail, to wait with bated breath for their turn to eat come 2023 at the end of Buhari’s second term in office. The question many are asking is whether there is anyone or anything capable of breaking this vicious circle of chop-and-chop, cliff-hanger politics? Is there an inevitable civil strife Nigeria must go through to resolve the ethnicity question? Are things bound to get worse before they get better?
The above bear resonance to similar existential question faced by Ethiopia in the last 25 years of unrest, violence and ethnic division before a brash, charismatic and forward-looking young man emerged from the shadows to say enough! Abiy Ahmed, at 42, is Africa’s youngest head of government. He has the presence of mind to see the futility of killings, maiming, detentions, bombings, intimidation etc and say to his compatriots, hey, common, let us come together and build the country for the benefit of all. At first, nobody believed him until he started churning out one bold policy after another: freed thousands of political prisoners, ended 20-year conflict with Eriteria, set the press free, appointed 50% female into his cabinet, put forward a female nominee for President, brought back former opposition leader, Birtukan Mideska, from exile in the US to head the election commission, etc.
Ahmed was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, but chose to be a devout (Pentecostal) Christian himself. He understood the value of education in leadership, so, he set about acquiring relevant qualifications very early on in life, culminating in a Ph.D in Peace and Security Studies from Addis Ababa University. Before then, he had studied in University of Greenwich in London, collecting a Master’s in “Transformational Leadership”. He went back to his country, joined the army and rose to the lofty height of Lieutenant Colonel. “We have only one option and that is to be united and helping each other. The other option is to kill each other”, he said to a gathering at a town hall meeting recently. For a man who only entered politics in 2010 and became his country’s Prime Minister less than 10 months ago, it is nothing short of mind-boggling.
In order to run a country successfully, two attributes are imperative: First, character and judgement. Second, knowledge. Those two are present in Ahmed abundantly. Can we say the same of anyone currently running for President in Nigeria?
Contrary to popular belief, our problem In Nigeria is not corruption, poverty, unemployment, crime and the like. This is said with a cheerful nod to the late Chinua Achebe’s “The Trouble with Nigeria”, published in 1983. The point here is everyone knows that the elephant in the room in the polity is the lopsided nature of the Federal Government being so fundamentally iniquitous. It is what breeds life into all the other social vices around us. It is, sadly, what the political elite in the country are exploiting to advance their various platforms. This is explored more here next week, given the febrile political atmosphere currently sweeping the country. For now, though, Ahmed is from the Oromo ethnic stock, the largest of the ethnicities in Ethiopia at 34%, Amhara 27%, Tigriyan six%. He equipped himself with fluency in the languages of the three main ethnic groups in advance preparation for his current role. Ironically, it was the largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who used to cry foul at “marginalisation” from power. Nonetheless, Ahmed has quickly shown himself to “belong to no one, and to belong to everyone”, to quote from Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration speech as President in 2015. How people must wish he seriously meant those words. Had the President scrupulously stuck to the ideals embedded in the phrase, Ahmed might indeed have been the one coming to learn lessons from us in Nigeria. Instead, it is us in Nigeria who now have a lot to learn from him as he appears to have finally lanced the boil of ethnic chauvinism in the second largest country in Africa.