Nigerian author Chido Onumah argues that Nigeria’s key problem is nationhood. Except for a popular revolution that would fundamentally change the country, restructuring is the best option. That way, the country will remain one in order to deal with other serious issues such as poverty. “And the restructuring we are pushing is not to divide the country along ethno-religious lines but to create a civic nation along the principles of federalism.”
In his latest article in Pambazuka News titled, ‘Death of a nation: Biafra and the Nigerian question’, Chido Onumah, author of ‘We Are All Biafrans’, calls for restructuring of Nigeria, so that the nation can effectively serve the interests of all its people. Although Nigeria is by law a federal nation, successive governments have failed for over half a century to make this political system benefit the majority of the people. Onumah writes:
“Basically, what restructuring will do is to create new, workable and generally acceptable rules on how Nigeria should federate. We need to reorder the polity for effective governance. Clearly, our fortunes as a nation are tied to the kind of political, economic and social structure we put in place. We need to review revenue generation and allocation. We can’t talk or wish our way to prosperity as a nation. We must end financial irresponsibility and fiscal rascality by revisiting the issue of fiscal federalism. We must allow states to share greater responsibility in the policing of their states. We must abrogate local governments as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution and allow states to create local governments according to their needs. We must redefine citizenship rights and banish the indigene-settler dichotomy. This is what restructuring is about.”
Following up on Onumah’s call, Pambazuka News sought to know from him how exactly restructuring would work given the current realities of Nigeria as a neo-colony in a globalized world.
QUESTION: Nigeria is not working for most of her children. But is that not also true with all post-colonies in Africa? The challenge of nation building remains a big one across much of our continent. The masses of the people are yet to enjoy the fruits of independence. Why not accept this reality and work towards the Union Government that liberation heroes like Nkrumah proposed decades ago? What do you think about Pan-Africanism as a solution to this crisis of nation building in Nigeria and Africa?
ANSWER: Thanks for your mail and the splendid work you and the Pambazuka Team are doing. Now, I agree with you completely on a Pan-African solution to Africa’s myriad problems. But that solution is not as easy as it seems. Perhaps, if Nkrumah and others had the opportunity to go a bit further in their quest to emancipate Africa, the situation would have been different and perhaps easier today. The reality is that many of our nation-states (countries) are still reeling from the effects of colonialism (and imperialism). And this is not just felt on the economic level. You can feel it also on the ethnic, tribal, religious and social levels. This makes social cohesion almost impossible in many African countries. There is very little you can achieve in trying to mobilize people around their poverty and deprivation when you are not “their man”. My attitude to this problem is for progressives around the continent to continue to mobilize at the continental level while doing so locally. The problems are the same across Africa but the solutions can and should be different, if necessary.
Let me give you one or two examples. Senegal is a predominantly Moslem country, while Ghana is a predominantly Christian country, but you hardly hear any talk about religious tension between Moslems and non-Moslems in Senegal or Christians and non-Christians in Ghana. Compare that to some other countries in Africa where you have Christians or Moslems as the majority. In Benin Republic, next door to Nigeria, Christians worship with Moslems and vice versa; people of both faiths live and operate side by side in markets and other social arenas with hardly any problems.
The situation is different in Nigeria. Even when you find Christians and Moslems sharing the same social space, the tension is always palpable. Every little disagreement degenerates into religious rifts and ultimately mayhem. Is it a social, historical or cultural problem? Is it a failure of leadership? It certainly is a combination of these factors. There are few things peculiar to Nigeria: it is, perhaps, the only country in the world that has about equal percentage of followers of the two major religions, Christianity and Islam; it is the only country in the world where you have three major groups (and languages), each dominating a section of the country. This reality comes with its own challenges.
In mobilizing and tackling the social problems in Nigeria, therefore, we must consider these realities. We gloss over them at our own risk. I want Nigeria to be one big, strong, indivisible nation. The African continent will benefit immeasurably from that. Is it doable? I think it is. But, can we achieve this dream without ensuring justice and equity across the country? How many crises (read civil wars) can we afford before we achieve this goal? These are the questions we must find answers to because in the answers lie the solution to the survival of Nigeria. This is the immediate task before progressives and patriots.
QUESTION: In the end, grounding yourself in the lessons of the history of your country, yours is the thoughtful moral appeal of a statesman for dialogue to restructure Nigeria. But there are very many people who may not see the point of this – to begin with, the ruling classes who enjoy the benefits of the status quo and the so-called middle classes and other profiteers who are allied to them. This is why, to my mind, other impatient groups resort to violence to force a conversation – even when they may be the losers in the long run. How will you push the agenda for a reasoned national dialogue in these circumstances? In other words, how will you get Nigerian elites and their constituencies to the table to renegotiate Nigeria – a process that will most likely jeopardize their own privileges?
ANSWER: We are not really expecting the elite (and others who are benefiting or anticipate benefitting from the status quo) to support the call for restructuring. Not that they are not welcome. After all, Atiku Abubakar who was Vice President under President Obasanjo (1999-2007) has been championing the restructuring agenda for some time now. He was guest speaker at the public presentation of my book, We Are All Biafrans, last year where he gave a rousing speech on restructuring. Since then he has been going around the country pushing his position. Even though people accept his message, they are still wary because he is a Nigerian politician.
Our role really is to fight on all fronts. I tell people that the immediate challenge in Nigeria today is the existential crisis the country faces. Can we save the country while pushing a revolutionary agenda? Can we save the country before or after pushing a revolutionary agenda? There are no easy answers to these questions. Except for a popular revolutionary uprising (which is feasible but is not easily attainable) that changes the complexion of Nigeria, restructuring is the best option open to Nigeria. That way, the country can remain one and we can then begin to deal with sectorial issues like poverty, health, education, etc. And the restructuring we are pushing is not to divide the country along ethno-religious lines but to create a civic nation along the principles of federalism. There is need for a lot of education and awareness and sacrifice on the part of everyone who is interested in saving Nigeria.
QUESTION: Your analysis of the Nigerian situation seems to be oblivious of the global capitalist context of Nigeria’s predicament. Like everywhere else in the neo-colonial world, there are powerful external players involved who benefit from the crisis that allows them access to the nation’s huge resources, especially oil. Do you think these outside forces would agree to a dialogue to restructure Nigeria without a fight? How do you factor them in, in your proposed solution to the Nigerian crisis?
ANSWER: Again, I agree with you that there is a global capitalist/imperialist dimension to Nigeria’s predicament. That is understandable, after all Nigeria is a creation of imperialism. We are conscious of their machinations. But they are also worried because for you to exploit any country, you must have a country in place. I am not sure they are enjoying the difficult circumstances under which they have to plunder Nigeria. They wish things would quieten down. The bottom line is that I don’t see them opposing restructuring if it is going to keep Nigeria together. Restructuring is not in conflict with the desires of imperialism. The purpose of restructuring is to keep Nigeria as a single entity. It is after we have achieved that, then we will begin the onerous task of saving our people from the throes of capitalism and imperialism.
QUESTION: One of the most insightful articles we have published on Nigeria is a recent one by Osaze Lanre Nosaze who, through class analysis, attempts an ideological diagnosis of Nigeria’s problems, particularly the failure of Socialist forces to dislodge the entrenched predator classes in order to create the sort of society that you aspire to in your article. I would like to hear what you think about pushing efforts towards the rise of a revolutionary movement of all working people - cutting across identities, regions, religions, ethnicities and grievances - with the objective of demolishing the entire system as it stands at present and establishing a Socialist government in Nigeria. This would be restructuring – but from below.
ANSWER: I read Lanre’s (he has been a comrade and friend for decades) piece and I think it was a great analysis. That is exactly what we need, not just in Nigeria, but across Africa. There have been many failed attempts in Nigeria in the past to get a revolutionary movement of the working class going. The failure of the Socialist movement in Nigeria is also due in part to the peculiar contradictions in the Nigerian society. Nigeria is a deeply divided society partly because of its history and partly because of what successive rulers have done. We are dealing with a “developing country” that barely survived a 30-month civil war. For many, that war is not over yet. The fear, hatred and antipathy are real. We must devise ways to deal with the fears and concerns while pushing for a revolutionary transformation of the country.
QUESTION: Finally, you end with the famous revolutionary clarion call: “do not agonise, organize.” But outside of the revolutionary working people’s organizing for Socialist government in Nigeria (and elsewhere in Africa), what other type of organizing are you having in mind in your call to the Nigerian young people to seize the moment and define the kind of future they want? How else can Nigerian young people organize, in a system already rigged against them in favour of elite interests and their foreign backers?
ANSWER: There are many things around which we can organize in a country like Nigeria. Nigeria is not a modern or democratic society in the real sense of the word. The structure and orientation is more of the lethal combination of a feudal and theocratic society. That is the dominant thinking among the ruling class. If we get young people to mobilize around democracy, rule of law, secularity, etc., we would have made a giant stride. If we get young people to mobilize around the ideals of social justice, civic nationhood, we have taken a leap forward. There are working people across Nigeria. Their pain and suffering is the same, but their response differs depending on who is in power and which part of the country he comes from.
The system is rigged against the youth of Nigeria but that is the challenge of their generation. The challenge of the generation 60 years ago was the struggle for independence. Unfortunately, when it came, power fell into the “wrong hands”. The challenge of my generation was to fight military rule and dictatorship and to enthrone democracy. Regrettably, what we have today is just civilian rule because when the time came many of those who championed the cause of democracy abdicated the political space to charlatans and agents of the old order who have for 18 years been busy looting the national treasury and impoverishing the masses. The task of the current generation, many of whom didn’t witness the civil war (and are therefore not prone to the fear and loathing of other Nigerians), and barely lived under military dictatorship, is to promote the ideals of nationhood. I think if we achieve this, every other thing will follow.