I have argued that the recognition of ethno-religious sentiments in governance is the cornerstone of many of Nigeria’s violent conflicts. Although ethnic and religious groups have their good user in mobilizing populations around some goals, ethnic groups have not always been friends of the modern state. At least in Nigeria, and in many countries all over Africa, ethnic groups have often proven better markers in determining battle lines better than geographical boundaries. Today, Nigeria is seeking ways to overcome many of the challenges brought on by the complexities of ethnic and religious interaction in the country. The path the government proposes to take is a National Dialogue.
Several commentators have put in so much energy in saying that this would be the first time that every ethnic group within Nigeria would have the opportunity of reviewing our national union. It is claimed that this union was forced on us by the British almost 100 years ago and that up till now, we have not had a real chance at addressing if we want to really stay together. I must say that such arguments are petty. Before the attainment of independence in 1960 Nigerian ‘nationalists’, or more accurately, ‘elites within major ethnic groups’, had several conferences and debates across the country to find a consensus upon which the sovereign state of Nigeria would be built upon and governed by Nigerians. Historians can testify that Nigeria as a sovereign state could have emerged earlier than 1960 but for certain disagreements along these same ethnic lines. Even by 1960, it was clear that Nigeria had not evolved in its political culture which was deeply rooted in ethnic loyalties and rivalries.
From the onset, Nigeria has struggled through several elite interactions to accommodate the restless energy of our ethnic groups. We have fed these untrained tendencies and they have always come back to pounce on the peace of the polity.
Now, I hope that this proposed dialogue would be bold enough in its character to disallow ethnic sentiments or grievances to come up at all. I believe ethnic sentiments and grievances are real only to the extent that we have built our national structures on ethnic considerations. If we changed the measure and the basic unit of our domestic interaction, we might also change the nature of sentiments and grievances that we would face in the future. So what are those alternatives to our age long ethno-religious stereotypes?
I believe that alternatives exist in the excellent world of merit, sound national economic policies, and education. At this time, we must choose between facing our collective destiny through structural/institutional approaches, which we rarely engage or ‘strategic interactions among elites’, which we have always had.
When research teams set out to find out how much progress a country has made they rarely look at ethnic superiority or ethnic equality or any other variant. Instead, they cite indices that include health, education, wealth, economic growth, gdp per capita, and human rights.
We have had a political culture that tries to integrate ethnic groups and not Nigerians for far too long, and with adverse consequences. I believe the first step out of this web is to admit, at a national level, that the system which has glorified ethno-religious loyalties rather than loyalty to ‘Nigeria’ is a big part and source of our problems. Politics which is shaped by patronage, client relationships and elite competition is a fertile ground for corruption and institutional decay.
It is my desire to see that the National Dialogue does not attempt to once again reconcile ethnic parties, cut presidential-candidate alternation deals, and make fantastic promises to these groups that cannot be sustained beyond a few years. I prefer that delegates to this conference would be chosen from professional unions (including academic and law unions) and the private business sectors, political parties representatives, and current political office holders. I also hope that the moderators of these dialogue would be firm enough in stamping out ethnic sentiments from these meetings. I believe that after such rounds of broad discussions across all sectors of the economy and government which would focus on national development indices and how to create a uniform standard of living threshold across the entire country the troubles of corruption, unemployment, educational lag, uneven resource distribution and human right abuses would be solved. This sounds so simple, so straightforward, that it now looks implausible. But that is exactly what alternatives are about. They shake up whole systems and redefine the way things are done. Some years before, all industries relied on coal. But change came. And today, we are yet on another verge of change. It is change that must be made if the ecosystem our be preserved. And here are changes we must make if Nigeria is to survive and live in full. I say this because I believe in ‘Nigeria’.