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Nigeria’s Future: Separation or Unity?

Tonson Sango explores two divergent paths Nigeria could take in the first of a two-part series.
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Vice President Namadi Sambo (second from left) and President Goodluck Jonathan cut the cake on the 2011 51st anniversary of Nigeria's independence.

This article is the first in a two-part series.

In the light of Nigeria’s recent 51st anniversary as an independent country, most Nigerians have had cause to mourn rather than celebrate. Following events unfolding in Nigeria from abroad has evoked in me a feeling of helplessness as I watch my fatherland being consumed by wild fire. The rapid decline of Nigeria is evident in the prevailing flames of the endemic corruption culture, bureaucratic incompetence, ethnic sectarianism and more recently ethno-religious terrorism, which have united with the ferocious intent of reducing the Nigerian state into ashes. Nigerians are not happy, let alone the happiest nation in the world.

“I have no history, no memory, I am a fool,” was the famous line of Paul - played by Don Cheadle - in the movie Hotel Rwanda when, like many young Africans, he felt helpless and worthless during the Rwandan genocide. Today, I ask myself these questions, “Who am I?”, “What does it mean to be Nigerian?”, “Who is my father?” and “is my father’s burning house worth saving?”

As an Aten - one of the over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria - it is a cultural taboo for a responsible man to do nothing while his house crumbles and his family scatters. It is at this crucial moment in our history that we must take hold of our destiny and shape our future. We must decide or at least begin to seriously discuss the future of ‘the largest black country on earth’, with over 150 million people. Before us are two paths: separation or unity. If we are to be responsible for our future, we must consciously decide which way to go, being aware of the implications and prepared to endure the challenges that will surface.

Part one: separation

The potential separation of Nigeria is regarded as “the wide way” because of its re-emerging popularity as an option in the minds of many distressed Nigerians. Nigeria has never truly been a united country and neither has there been a unanimous agreement among Nigerians on what it means to be a Nigerian. A construction of Flora Shaw, a British woman, the name “Nigeria” has been tremendously slow in resonating a strong sense of affinity and patriotism in all of its people. But this lack of love for our fatherland is not simply because of its dark past, from which we were born - i.e. the indecent affair between our continent and Europe, characterised by transatlantic slavery and aggressive colonialism - but also because of the deep-rooted ethnic segmentation which continues to inhibit the development of a strong national identity.

Institutionalised ethnic fragmentation: from a state to nation states?

A reiterated question on Nigeria has been: “With about 250 ethnic groups and over 150 million people, is Nigeria unmanageable?” This question is not about the density of the population alone, but also its diversity. Many are of the view that Nigeria is so culturally diverse that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to manage as a single united country for long.

Not only do Nigerian ethnic groups speak different languages and adhere to different cultural practices, but they also continue to deliberately preserve their distinct traditional systems and institutions of governance which reinforce ethnic identity and loyalty over national identity and patriotism. Within the context of a failing Nigerian state whose government is weakened by corrupt politicians who are more often concerned with selfish interests, most Nigerians are turning inwards towards their traditional leaders – Chiefs, Emirs, Obas, Obis – to meet their individual and communal needs. The consequence of this is the further loss of faith in Nigeria as a state and the re-emergence of divisive ethno-regional sentiments, which are beginning to materialise in the rapid increase of ethnic civil society organisations and ethnic politics.

Nigerians are now seeking the best interest of their immediate ethnic families before that of their extended family of fellow Nigerians. Groups such as the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Oduduwa Peoples Congress (OPC), Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Middle-Belt Dialogue (MDB) are becoming more active political players in lobbying for the political, economic and socio-cultural interest of their ethno-regional blocs – the North-East and North-West, South-West, South-South, South-East and North-Central geo-political regions respectively. The extent to which this represents a potential blue-print for political separation is evident but debateable.

Religious intolerance: the way of India, Pakistan and the Sudans?

Ethno-regional fragmentation is further worsened by the religious affiliations of Nigerians, which presents an alternative of “the wide way” - the one taken by India, Pakistan and more recently Sudan. The voting patterns of the 2011 presidential election reveals more clearly the extent to which religion has penetrated Nigerian politics, creating a blueprint for division with the Muslim-dominated north potentially separated from the Christian-dominated south. This version of the separation is quite a tempting one as Nigerians are a deeply religious people whose sense of community is intimately related and influenced by spiritual values. Yet such values as loving one’s neighbour as one’s self, turning the other cheek and charity have scarcely been translated across the religious divide. Instead, religious adherents on both sides have been keen to send the other to hell through religious violence and discrimination.

The increasing lethality of religious fundamentalist groups such as Boko Haram, as well as the killing of over 2,000 civilians by Muslims and Christians in Jos, has raised serious questions about the viability of a united Nigeria. While many will argue that Nigeria’s federalism has achieved a great feat in keeping the country together, preserving its diversity and allowing for 12 out of its 36 constituent states to implement sharia law, the need for peace and rapid sustainable development now overshadows such voices. Furthermore, the state’s responses to such violence and insecurities have been largely ineffective and counter-productive. The extra-judicial killings carried out by the Nigerian army in Jos, as well as the lackadaisical attitude of President Jonathan, have all served to ‘fan the flames’ of state failure.

The argument is that a Nigeria separated along a religious divide may allow for northern and southern Nigeria to develop as independent states, where religion transcends ethnicity to create stronger national identities. This will then serve as the fulcrum for stability, allowing for rapid economic development. While many “southerners to-be” would be keen to explore this road because of the economic viability of the region, others are worried about the “to-be north” as a potential source of regional insecurity. Moreover, many are weary that this is a path that leads us backward rather than forward, and cannot be trod without the bloodshed already experienced during the Biafran civil war of 1967 - 1970. As Matthew's Gospel suggests, “wide is the way that leads to destruction”.

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I do think though that it would be incorrect to think of southern Nigeria as being sufficiently homogenous either in terms of ethnicity, or religion, to exist peaceably in a united single political entity, especially if the hope is that there shall be created a state "where religion transcends ethnicity to create stronger national identities", since not all southerners are Christians.

Thanks for your comment Anengiyefa. What is implied is that religion represents the strongest factor that could play a role in the potential division of Nigeria into two countries. Hypothetically, of course there will be muslims in Southern Nigeria and christians in Northern Nigeria (as in the case with muslims in India and Hindus in Pakistan). This may not ultimately eradicate other forms of conflicts within the new states, but may serve to minimise ethnic fragmentation just as Islam has achieved between Hausas, Fulanis and some northern minority tribes. But the more important question is ... do we want to travel down this road?

The only problemm with Nigeria is we Nigerians. Modern Nigeria was made in the same frame as the US - a federal republic, where each state runs it's affairs. How can any intelligent person suggestion seperation when our states are a mess?The main issue is that we Nigerians do no focus on community building. Before we can build a country, we have to build our villages.Instead of asking what the government has done for Nigerians, how many Nigerians can say that they have contributed to nation-building? Remember, politicians and government officials are also fellow Nigerians from various parts of the country. Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, Easterners all want their own "country", but their individual states are a mess. How can or will seperation solve that? All it takes is a leader like Kagame, to force our people to put our nation first. I think it is fantastic that we have a diverse culture and 250 languages and ethnic groups. We should embrace it - not shun it. The US isn't homogenuous - why should Nigeria be?

By comparison, the USA is very, very homogenous. You can start at any point in the United States, drive to another town or city 1000 miles in the same direction, and people will be speaking the same language, watching the same television, eating the same foods, and living in the same houses.