Nigeria is big, but greatness has eluded it; who will rescue the nationhood project?

Sunday January 22 2012



The Federal Republic of Nigeria denotes a big country that has all the hallmarks of a great nation but has sadly failed to make the transition from bigness to greatness.

It is big in several ways.

It has the biggest population in Africa, affording it the ability to declare to anyone who cares to listen that out of every four black men and women, one is Nigerian. It is the biggest oil producer on the continent. It has arguably the biggest army, one that has been active in providing solutions in troubled areas.
Yet it has remained just that — big; greatness has eluded it.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs and each one of us can hazard an explanation or two.

Basically, Nigeria is not very different from other African countries whose diverse populations were cobbled together by the colonial powers in their own interest. No colonial power ever embarked on the creation of a national state that would function as one after decolonisation.

All our countries had this experience, and those founding fathers — and mothers — who embarked on efforts to build a nation-state out of the colonial units bequeathed to them did so on the understanding that even in bondage, friendships are struck up and synergies are built and common futures plotted.

Nigeria was not alone in failing to take concrete steps toward the unification of all the disparate ethnic and religious communities into one nation, but its failure has been demonstrated more dramatically than in most other African countries.

Since the first coup, dubbed the Ibo coup, in 1966, that killed premier Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and many prominent northerners, and through all the subsequent coups and futile attempts to entrench a civilian democracy, mutual trust among the various groups has been in short supply, and this has led to a mechanical modus vivendi in which the differences, rather than being done away with, are written into the Constitution.
For instance, by his own admission, Olusegun Obasanjo, former head of state, by the mere fact of being stationed in several different states as a young officer, has had children born in those states.

But if these children want to apply for a job in the civil service or the army, they have to go back to Yoruba land where their father hails from. This has meant that there will not be a truly common citizenship.

My dear departed friend, Tajudeen Abdulraheem, had somehow been unique in this in that he was, incredibly, both Yoruba and Hausa, his father having migrated to the north and taking him along with him.

Maybe if he had not died at such a young age, he would have been the one true Nigerian to unify the others.

When, in 1975, a group of young officers (including Obasanjo and Joseph Garba) led by Murtalla Muhammad took over the country and sounded like they were determined to make Nigeria make sense and take its rightful place in Africa, some of us were elated.

I remember vividly the way Murtalla and Garba marched into Africa Hall, Addis Ababa, in early 1976 to change the course of the debate over the recognition of the People’s Republic of Angola, which had divided the continent down the middle. Even Idi Amin, who was chairing the session, realised that the big boys had arrived.

But Murtalla was assassinated before the year was out. Another opportunity seemed to offer itself with the election of Moshood Abiola in 1992, but he was not allowed to govern and died in prison in the custody of perhaps the most sinister of all the plotters in that plot-drunk country, Sani Abacha.

Is this big country once again on the verge of civil war and possible collapse?

The scars of the Biafra war have never healed completely; Nigeria desperately needs a transformational leadership that will pull it in the direction of nationhood.